ADA Alexandra Cooper’s 11th case takes her about as far from her bailiwick as head of Manhattan’s Sex Crimes Unit as you can get—into the bowels of the New York Public Library.
The circumstantial evidence says that Tina Barr was assaulted by a masked man who held her captive in her basement apartment for six hours. But that’s all the evidence the NYPD will get, because Tina, after reluctantly letting Alex cajole her way into the apartment and persuade her to go to Mount Sinai Hospital, refuses to admit the cops to scope out the forensic evidence, checks herself out against medical advice and vanishes. By the time she turns up lying in a path that runs through Bryant Park, which is adjacent to the New York Public Library, she’s dead, and so is Karla Vastasi, the housekeeper to Tina’s landlady, Minerva Hunt. The only apparent reason for Karla’s murder is that, wearing one of her employer’s outfits and carrying one of her handbags, she was mistaken for the Park Avenue heiress she wasn’t. What was the killer of the two women looking for? The leading candidates are a priceless 1507 map that the library didn’t even know it had and an edition of Alice in Wonderland that’s not suitable for children. The exact identity of the murderer’s target, however, is less interesting than the incestuous web of relations among the library’s trustees, including several members of Minerva’s entertainingly dysfunctional family, and the private collectors who are their allies, their rivals and sometimes the swindlers who prey on them.
Fairstein, whose recent felonious tours of the Big Apple (Killer Heat, 2008, etc.) are as dense with background detail as Margaret Truman’s D.C. series, has such a great time demythologizing the New York Public Library so that she can mythologize it afresh that many fans won’t notice how thin her whodunit is, and how little difference it makes who’s guilty.