It’s been a busy few weeks in crime fiction, to put it mildly.
It all started when Netflix released a new series, “When They See Us,” which depicts the legal railroading of the Central Park Five, a group of young men who were convicted of raping a jogger in Central Park in 1989.
Linda Fairstein, former head of the sex crimes unit of the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, is shown in the series as central to that railroading; and as portrayed by Felicity Huffman, she’s an utterly merciless, racist psychopath. (The convictions of the Central Park Five were later vacated, after a serial rapist offered a confession backed by DNA.)
Fairstein has spent the past few decades as a bestselling mystery novelist, but the massive publicity around the series drove her former legal career back into the spotlight. Her publisher dropped her, along with the various boards she served on; she abandoned her social-media handles; and I’d be stunned, personally, if she ever publishes another book.
No sooner had the Fairstein controversy begun to die down when yet another kerfuffle erupted. This one involved Pegasus Books, which had partnered with Otto Penzler (founder of the Mysterious Press) to launch a new suspense imprint, Scarlet, which specialized in “psychological suspense aimed at female readers.”
No sooner had the Fairstein controversy begun to die down when yet another kerfuffle erupted.
It quickly emerged that Scarlet’s inaugural novel, although ostensibly written solely by a woman, had been secretly co-written with a man (and given the nebulousness of the term ‘co-written,’ he could just have easily have written the bulk of it); a second novel in their queue, meanwhile, was written by a man using a feminine pseudonym.
“Why not be open about the use of male authors?” I wrote at the time. “Why attempt to hide their identities behind another gender so aggressively?”
Pegasus Books had no answers to those questions; but earlier this week, via Twitter (which how everything important is seemingly announced these days), they told me that they were parting ways with Scarlet:
Hi Nick, our ownership has the highest respect for the integrity of Scarlet’s editorial board, but moving forward Pegasus will no longer be partners in Scarlet’s publishing program.
— Pegasus Books (@Pegasus_Books) June 17, 2019
The more I think about it, the more I see the Fairstein and Scarlet cases as part of the same grand narrative, one that speaks to broader inequalities in crime fiction.
Clearly, Pegasus Books/Scarlet wanted to take advantage of what some view as a “hot” trend in crime fiction: women authors. But at the same time, they didn’t seem to trust that actual women could write books with strong women characters. Is “exploitation” too strong a term to apply in these circumstances? I think not. In any case, I’d be astounded to my core if another imprint picks up Scarlet as a partner, either in the short- or long-term.
Meanwhile, critics of Fairstein (and they’ve multiplied exponentially in the wake of “When They See Us”) argue that she’s essentially built her career atop a pile of human misery; that the social currency she drew from her time in the DA’s office fueled her rise up the bestseller lists.
Your own mileage with that theory may vary; she’s certainly not the first writer to use their actual life as grist for fiction, and her supporters argue that her legal work ultimately produced far more good than harm. But if you believe that the Central Park Five were innocent, and that Fairstein’s conduct during their interrogations was ethically untenable, then the whole tree is poisoned, from the roots to the top.
Both cases demonstrate how blowback has proven effective at disturbing the well-entrenched power structures that undergird much of crime fiction. While some might decry Twitter mobs and angry op-ed writers, such “swarm protests” are often the only way to enact serious change, particularly when no other recourses exist. In the case of Pegasus Books/Scarlet, what other options were available?