Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Straddling the Centuries

"Pintoff's debut...will remind many of Caleb Carr at his best... The period detail, characterizations and plotting are all top-notch..."

—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

HANK: I love Caleb Carr's mysteries. The Alienist and The Angel of Death. And E.L. Doctorow's The Waterworks. And Ragtime, of course.

From the first moments of Stefanie Pintoff's debut mystery, I was transported to the same places and time. We met at Malice (introduced by the inimitable Vinny O'Neil). I got her book. And I was hooked.

And we're so happy she's visiting Jungle Red.

(Especially since she's often got part of her brain in another century.)

HANK: Tell us a little about your book – what's it about? Where did the idea come from?

STEPHANIE: IN THE SHADOW OF GOTHAM is about Detective Simon Ziele, who leaves NewYork City to rebuild his life in a small Westchester town following the loss of his fiancée in the Slocum steamship disaster (the worst disaster to strike the city prior to 9/11).

But the brutal murder of a young woman draws him right back in – and his investigation isfurther complicated when noted criminologist Alistair Sinclair becomes involved. Alistair is convinced the killer is someone he interviewedin the course of his experimental research into the criminal mind.They make an unlikely pair: Alistair is a high-brow society figure with a consuming passion for understanding criminal violence, and Ziele is a pragmatic investigator with Lower East Side roots and a remarkable affinity for each victim he encounters. Though he remains suspicious that the solution may not be as simple as Alistair thinks, Ziele proves himself more than up to the task of adapting tried-and-true detective methods to the sometimes unorthodox innovations of a new age in forensics.

My idea for the book started with Alistair – who is loosely based on one of my former law professors with a larger-than-life personality! Then I thought: What if … there had been a terrible crime?

And what if … there was a criminologist who believed he knew the killer responsible because he had interviewed him?

And what if … that criminologist had been more involved than he initially let on? Those questions kept coming until I had conceived not only of my dedicated but self-absorbed criminologist, Alistair Sinclair – but also the detective who would more than be his match.

HANK: Lots more questions for Stephanie--but she has such an interesting method of research..and her thought processes are so fascinating. Let's just let her talk...

STEFANIE: I’ve always loved newspapers, and as a historical mystery writer, I read them a lot – but I’m usually a hundred years behind the times. That’s because my new mystery series is set in New York at the turn-of-the-last-century. Today I’d like to give you a glimpse into that world by sharing with you some New York Times front-page stories from this past week – in 1905.

- A ten-foot snake caused a stampede on Fifth Avenue and 18th Street.

- Carbonic acid was thrown into the face of a twenty-five year old Brooklyn girl (the newspaper’s language, not mine) by an unknown assailant.

- A bomb, presumed to be the work of the Black Hand, was thrown into the window of a building in the heart of Little Italy – destroying that building as well as its nearest neighbor.

- John D. Rockefeller just bought his first car – a touring vehicle – for $5,000

- Two ferryboats collided: the New York of the Fulton Line and the Maryland of the New Haven line.

- A man was found dead of opium poisoning in a hansom cab.

- President Teddy Roosevelt garnered high praise for the way he handled a worker’s strike.

Also in 1905, the following advertisements appeared in numerous papers.
One for a toothache remedy:

Another for Bayer’s Heroin, used to treat strong coughs:

Research like the above may never make it to the pages of my novel, but it’s essential – and fun! All historical fiction creates a world that’s part-real and part-invented. In fact, I think that blend –of the true and the imagined – is a huge part of its appeal. I’m often asked how important historical accuracy is to my work.

Of course it’s important, but my primary goal isn’t just to incorporate much that’s true from 1905 into my novel. It’s to capture the spirit of the times in everything I invent. If I do it well, then my readers will always feel grounded in my story’s era – even when what carries them is the flight of my own imagination.

To capture that spirit of the times, I look at many resources, but I find nothing to be more helpful than a contemporary newspaper; it’s a virtual snapshot of the interests and concerns of a particular community. What were the headlines? What made the police blotter? Who was in the society column? What shows were reviewed in the arts column? And what products were advertised regularly? As the headlines from only one week in 1905 suggest, this was a time period full of danger as well as exciting changes. When I read what my characters would have, I can better understand their world-view.

My own research centers on turn-of-the-century New York, but the world-building that results is what all writers do. We each have our favorite resources – maybe a friend at the NYPD who helps us check current police procedure, or a new contact at a hair salon who helps us with our next book involving a stylist, or simply our local coffee shop, where we can observe the mix of personalities on a given day.

As a writer, how do you negotiate the tension of balancing the real and the invented? And as a reader, what do you think is most important in grounding a story and giving it texture and life?
Stefanie Pintoff became the inaugural winner of the St. Martin's Minotaur/MWA Best First Crime Novel Competition with her novel, In the Shadow of Gotham. A graduate of Columbia Law School, she also has a Ph.D. in literature from New York University. Her second novel, The Darkest Verse, is forthcoming in 2010.


  1. Welcome Stefanie! I cannot wait to read your book and will be taking it with me on a trip this week. I met Stefanie at a MWA-NY dinner some months back and got to spend time with her at Malice and Festival of Mystery and if you think that megawatt smile (it's even more dazzling in person)hides a little mischief you're absolutely right.

    Question - Readers are so careful to spot things these days - how hard was it to keep anachronisms out of your work?

  2. Thanks, Rosemary - it was great spending time with you last month too!

    Anachronisms ... yes, I find it a challenge to avoid them. I'm lucky: well before I started writing my novel, I grew comfortable with my time period reading late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century literature as well as indulging my amateur interest in New York history. But even though I have a good feel for the times, I constantly turn to my etymology dictionary to check whether certain words were in use at the time - or not.

    And the demands of “setting” actually give me the hardest time. Maps help, as do the wonderful resources available for old New York in original library collections and history books. But for example, I had wanted to set one of my chapters in a well-known Italian restaurant – for which I found menus, numerous pictures, and diary descriptions that gave me a wonderful sense of its energy and atmosphere. I knew it had opened sometime during the year 1905. But was it March - or December? I couldn’t confirm the exact month; in fact, some sources actually contradicted one another. So I gave up and picked another restaurant! (I did save the information and plan to use it in my next novel, set in 1906).

  3. Welcome Stefanie,
    YOur novel sounds awesome. And-- maybe its just me -- but reading really old newspapers sounds completely intriguing!

    Can't wait to check out turn-of-the-century New York.

  4. Thanks, Jan. It's not just you -- I think the old newspapers are great fun! And they're easy to navigate, now that so much has moved online. Though I still like going to the New York Public and other libraries to find them ...

  5. Welcome to Jungle Red, Stephanie and congrats on your first book.
    We cover the same place, same era but from different perspectives. I loved your pictures of the patent medicines. They were the feature of my latest Molly Murphy book, In a Gilded Cage and I put them into a story after I was given a book of recipes for cosmetics and medicines and realized how easily you could kill somebody with things laced with cocaine, opium, mercury, arsenic etc.

  6. Thank you, Rhys. I’ve long enjoyed your New York turn-of-the-century books –- in fact, In a Gilded Cage is in my TBR pile, a treat to enjoy after I’ve finished the draft of my second novel.

    I still find it amazing how differently people in the early 1900s viewed medicine. As part of the research for my second, I read up on the murder trial of Roland Molineaux, who had mailed poison to his enemies -– badly disguised in a homemade bottle as medicine. But his victims took the samples without thinking twice. Of course, they hadn’t weathered our generation’s Tylenol tampering scare. As you say, it was so easy …

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  8. Thanks for the congratulations!

    Yes, I've always loved the past. There’s something magical for me about escaping to a different time and place – albeit one where much is still familiar about human psychology and motivation. And I always view NYC as two cities in one: a modern city vibrant with life, but with a past that remains ever-present in the architecture around us.

  9. Welcome to Jungle Red, Stefanie, and congratulations on the new book! I'm jealous of you, Rhys, Sarah Smith, and anyone else who can write a period setting. But it's amazing how fast something that's current and common knowledge when you're writing it can become an 'anachronism' by the time the thing gets published, even just a year or two later.

    My husband collects New York books, post cards and memorabilia. Hotel restaurant interiors, subway maps, ball game score sheets, train schedules, menus, and on (and on) it goes, all from NY turn of the century.... Wish I could use it in my work.

  10. Very psyched to read this - I've been hearing so much about it. Loved hearing the author herself.

  11. Welcome to JR Stefanie! You have some amazing credentials. I'm wondering if you're "just" writing now, or if you have a day job too?

    We're so pleased to have you here today and wish you all the best with your book!

  12. Thank you Hallie -- and from your description, I’m definitely jealous of your husband’s turn-of-the-century New York memorabilia collection! That would be something to see.

    I think you’re right that in some ways, period settings are easier to navigate in that at least they’re “fixed.” I don’t have to worry about the latest advances in our constantly evolving technology. I admit, I barely keep up with it all as a consumer, much less a writer!

    And Clea, thanks so much for checking in with such kind words.

  13. Roberta, thank you for all the good wishes!

    My day job -- other than writing -- is keeping up with my active seven-year-old daughter.

    I'm lucky ... I have a supportive spouse who, when I was deciding whether to go back to work or stay home with our new daughter, asked, "didn't you always want to write a book?" Of course, I did. So I stayed home with our daughter and started what became In the Shadow of Gotham. It didn't go very well until she started kindergarten ... but then I finished it, entered it in the MWA/Minotaur Books Best First Crime contest, and when it won, I found myself with a publishing contract and a new career.

  14. Stefanie, your hub belongs in our Jungle Red Hall of Fame--right along with our guys!

  15. I started In the Shadow of Gotham this week and am loving it! Whenever I go to New York, my favorite part is exploring the historic architecture, especially all the gargoyles that have been there looking down on us for so many years. I love it when a good historical novel takes me there, too.

  16. Gigi, It was great meeting you at Malice a few weeks ago -- and I'm thrilled to hear you're enjoying the book. I love gargoyles too ... they're the reason for at least a couple of my settings!

  17. Hey Stefanie--

    Thanks so much for being here today! It was terrific of you to come back and chat...and we hope you'll come back and visit when The Darkest Verse is published. (Um, if not before!) Congratulations on your wild success.

    Tomorrow..something completely different. I mean--COMPLETELY different.

  18. Hey Stefanie!

    Congratulations on the rave in Reviewing the Evidence..Oh, I'll find the link and post it.

    And here it is, by the fabulous P.J. Coldren:


  19. Hank and everyone at Jungle Red--thanks very much for inviting me on! I enjoyed it.