Scene of the Crime is happy to have Edgar Award-winning author Stefanie Pintoff with us today. Stefanie is the author of a historical mystery series featuring Detective Simon Ziele where early criminal science meets the dark side of old New York. Her debut novel, In the Shadow of Gotham, won the coveted Edgar for best first novel as well as the St. Martin’s Press / Mystery Writers of America Best First Crime Novel Award. That first novel also earned nominations for the Anthony, Agatha, and RT Reviewer’s Choice Awards and raves from reviewers. A starred review from Library Journal praised her “vividly depicted turn-of-the-century Gotham,” while Publishers Weekly, in another starred review, declared “Pintoff’s debut … will remind many of Caleb Carr at his best… The period detail, characterizations and plotting are all top-notch, and Ziele has enough depth to carry a series.”
Her second in the series, A Curtain Falls, came out in May 2010. In yet another starred review, Library Journal noted, “This worthy sequel … brings to life New York’s theater world at the turn of the 20th century and the fledgling science of criminology. Fans of Caleb Carr will like this one.” Stefanie is currently at work on her third novel, which will appear in 2011. A former lawyer and academic, she lives in Manhattan’s Upper West Side with her husband, daughter, and their family dog.
Stefanie, it is a great pleasure to have you with us at Scene of the Crime. Congratulations on your successes. To start things off, how about describing your connection to New York, scene of your crimes.
I write about New York City, and I’ve lived here – either in the city or its immediate suburbs – for almost twenty years.
Like many of Europe’s great cities, it’s impossible to walk through New York’s many neighborhoods without being aware of its unique architecture. From brownstones to cobblestone streets to the grand theaters of Broadway – not to mention the occasional colonial house tucked between modern apartment buildings – physical relics of early New York remain. They gesture toward a history and time period that’s no longer readily accessible.
Did you consciously set out to use your New York at the turn of the twentieth century as a “character” in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story or stories?
There was never a question but that New York City would be a central character in my books. I’m one of those people who became a New Yorker the moment I set foot here – and I find the city and its history endlessly fascinating.
How do you incorporate location in your fiction? Do you pay overt attention to it in certain scenes, or is it a background inspiration for you?
Because I’m writing about early 1900s New York, I’m always conscious that my setting is both like – and unlike – present-day NYC. I try to incorporate scenes that capture that sensation for readers. For example, in Simon Ziele’s 1905/1906 New York, he navigates streets where pedestrians, horse-drawn carriages, and automobiles (both gas-powered and electric) vie for space. The brand new underground subway rumbles below; the El train squeals above.
That actually symbolizes what I love about my time period: the clash between old and new – late-Victorian custom and early-modern progress – is real and apparent.
How does Detective Ziele interact with his surroundings?
Simon Ziele is native to the Lower East Side, though it’s not his favorite place. He was raised in poverty in a tenement, and he later encountered much violent crime there as a rookie policeman. He continues to have a mixed view of the city as a whole: he deplores its violence and crime, dislikes its crowds, and yet craves the challenges and opportunities that only New York City can offer.
Has there been any local reaction to your works?
So far, local reaction has been positive! My books have not yet appeared internationally – though rights have been sold to the UK, Turkey, Russia, and Japan, and some of those publishers expect to release my first book late in 2010. It will be interesting to see how my depiction of early-twentieth-century Gotham is received.
Especially when you write in an earlier time period, it’s always a challenge to avoid anachronisms. I try my best, but sometimes something slips through. For example, part of my first novel is set at Columbia University and I misnamed one of its residence halls thanks to the wrong map. A generous donor had inspired Columbia to rename the building – and the map I consulted didn’t reflect that!
Of the Simon Ziele novels, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place? Could you quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your novels?
The selection below is from A Curtain Falls, as Ziele travels to a murder scene at the Garrick Theater:
“It had begun snowing and the air was thick with oversized flakes. They transformed the sky into a mass of white, but melted the moment they reached the ground, creating a slush of mud and sand. A typical March snow. I shivered as a few flakes made their way underneath my scarf to the warmth of my neck, and I became conscious of the dull ache in my right arm, aggravated as always by the cold and damp. I’d learned to anticipate the pain in such weather – ever since the day two summers ago when I injured my arm aboard a rescue boat taking in survivors from the Slocum disaster. Though the injury should have been temporary, the poor skills of the doctor who treated me had rendered it permanent.
“I thrust such thoughts out of my mind as I turned onto West Thirty-fifth Street, dodging a horse-and-carriage that careened around the corner. It was trying to avoid a polished black automobile that monopolized the center of the street, occasionally sliding on the wet road. The streets were filled with horses and cars, bicyclists and pedestrians, creating a free-for-all of sorts. It was no wonder the daily papers were filled with accident reports.
“As I approached the Garrick Theater. I was immediately struck by the fact that the sergeant was right: for whatever reason, the murder inside was being kept quiet. No police officer stood outside the theater, though it would have been standard protocol to post someone by the door to keep the public at bay and deflect the questions of reporters and curious onlookers. Where I would have expected a bustle of activity, today it was as deserted as the surrounding theaters.
“At this hour of the morning – it was near 11 o’clock – the theater district slept. It would be late afternoon before ticket offices opened and actors arrived for make-up and rehearsals. Only come evening would the entire neighborhood light up with the electric billboards that adorned each theater’s marquee and gave Broadway its newest nickname: the Great White Way.”
Who are your favorite writers, and do you feel that other writers influenced you in your use of the spirit of place in your novels?
I enjoy a wide variety of crime fiction! But I’d say the writers who most influence my spirit of place are those who are contemporary to my time period: Edith Wharton, Henry James, and Theodore Dreiser. And I can’t omit mentioning E.L. Doctorow; his wonderful portrayals of old New York were also a great influence.
What’s next for your protagonist?
I’m just finishing the third in the series, with the working title “An Oath of Silence.” It takes Detective Ziele into a New York City underworld filled with hidden ciphers, secret societies, and anarchist plots.
Thanks, Stefanie, for taking the time to talk with Scene of the Crime. Good luck on book three.
For more information on Stefanie Pintoff, visit her homepage.