Q&A with Stefanie Pintoff

  • June 30, 2011

Stefanie Pintoff talks about her Edgar Award-winning series of historical mysteries, including her latest, "Secret of the White Rose"

Stefanie Pintoff is the author of three books: In the Shadow of Gotham, A Curtain Falls, and her latest, Secret of the White Rose. In her latest, the third in Pintoff’s Edgar Award winning historical series, the murder of a judge sets off a witch hunt that only Detective Simon Ziele and criminologist Alistair Sinclair can stop.

Does the gold emblem “Edgar Award Winning” on the front cover of your books make a difference?  If so, tell us how and why?

I’d like to think it makes a difference – that it helps my books stand out among so many others that fill the bookshelves.  Within a crowded mystery field, anything that encourages readers to take a closer look is a good thing.

These days, the trend seems to be the continuing saga of the mystery solving hero: create him/her, set the stage, and fill in the new detail.  Does your detective, Simon Ziele, become easier or harder to write?  Has he surprised you since you first met?

Simon Ziele has definitely become easier for me to write over time; in fact,  he becomes more real to me with each book as new chapters are added to his history.  This is important, since I’m aware that characters are the lifeblood of any story.  Certainly those books I love best are the ones that capture my heart with their characters.  And showing their emotional development is both the most challenging part of writing a series – yet also what I like best. Do it poorly, and the characters may seem stale or stagnant. Do it well, and you’ve provided your readers with new friends to follow as they move along life’s journey.

Simon Ziele has a deeply skeptical view of the world, yet he also harbors an essential optimism that good people and their actions can make a difference.  I have often been surprised by how well these opposing traits help him to navigate morally ambiguous choices.

You’re a lawyer with a Ph.D. in literature who writes murder mysteries.  Put it all together for our readers.  Are you uplifting the genre?  Why do so many enjoy a good murder mystery? Is it your favorite genre?

I was and always have been a voracious reader of crime fiction.  I became hooked when I read my first Nancy Drew novel as a child – and mystery has been my favorite genre ever since.

I think the genre has great appeal for a variety of reasons, one of which is that mystery plots are driven by high-stakes conflicts – both surrounding the central crime as well as the key characters.  These conflicts are what hook the reader into turning the pages, driven by the need to know what’s going to happen next.  And thanks to the conventions of the genre, as they’re entertained, readers can also count on other factors that have immense appeal.  They know the mystery they’re reading will offer them good characters to follow.  They know that some form of justice will prevail in the end – and that there will be an end – or closure – by the final page of the story.  They also will have a chance to learn something new, as so many of us who are writing either are experts in some field – or we become so through our research process as we write.

I do bring what I learned through my legal education and my dissertation on detective fiction into my writing. I’m not alone.  To name just two of the many talented and educated authors writing within the genre,  Jeffrey Deaver has a law degree and Jed Rubenfeld is on the faculty at Yale Law.  But what characterizes all of us, however many degrees we achieve, is the curiosity and desire to learn that we continue to bring to our fiction.  Each new book represents a new chance to explore a new topic and extend our skills.

It’s my own personal goal to keep improving and becoming better with each book I write.  But I’m not sure I’d say that any of us are “uplifting” a genre that already is rooted in the best literature in the English language.  After all, Hamlet and Macbeth are grounded in crime – murder is at the heart of both stories.  And Charles Dickens is often credited, along with Edgar Allan Poe and Wilkie Collins, as one of the earliest writers of detective fiction.

What do you feel the reader should know about Simon Ziele that will appear in every book?  How do you avoid becoming repetitive?

When we first meet Simon Ziele he is still reeling from the loss of his fiancée aboard the General Slocum steamship disaster, which claimed over a thousand lives and was the worst tragedy to strike New York City prior to 9/11. Ziele played a part in the rescue efforts, suffering an injury to his right arm – a permanent reminder of that fateful day. His personal loss and humble beginnings are central to his character and tenacity as a police detective.

I’ve tried to avoid becoming repetitive by revealing different aspects of this important part of Ziele’s history in each book.  For example, in the latest, Secret of the White Rose,  he is tapped to participate in a murder investigation because of his immigrant connections to his old neighborhood, which is now a hotbed for anarchism.  As he is reintroduced to a neighborhood filled with old friends and acquaintances he hasn’t seen in years, I can offer a different perspective on this piece of his history.

Is there a little truth in any of the murders?

Definitely.  My inspiration has come from varied sources – certain aspects of real murder cases I’ve uncovered as well as case studies of real-life convicted killers.

Do you start with the murder and work backwards or vice versa?

I usually start with the murder – or actually, with the murderer himself.  Then I work backwards, fleshing out the character:  Who is he or she?  What drives him or her?  Why is the murderer driven to kill now, rather than next week, next month, or next year?  The rest of the plot follows from these questions.

I like the way your books are multicultural even though they are set in time periods when communities were mostly segregated, The Secret of the White Rose in 1906 and Shadow of Gotham in 1905.  Was there really an “African” neighborhood in New York City in 1906?  Or was it Black American?

Thanks very much.  Yes, the New York City neighborhoods I describe in my novels really did exist.  In fact, “Little Africa” near Minetta Street in Greenwich Village was one of the largest African-American communities in the city throughout the 19th century.  By 1906, there were still a significant number of African Americans in the Village, though many had relocated to new neighborhoods farther uptown.  San Juan Hill was one such neighborhood (loosely, this is the area we know as Lincoln Center today).  It was arguably the most heavily populated African-American neighborhood in Manhattan in the early Twentieth century – and its nightlife played an important role in the development of jazz.

Why did you pick the time period?

I became fascinated by early criminal science and how it was being used to solve crime at the turn of the last century. By 1905, a growing number of criminal scientists were beginning to challenge the prevailing opinion that criminal behavior resulted from a flaw of nature – the view popularized by Lombroso’s theory of the “born criminal.” Scientists like my Alistair Sinclair sought to disprove these notions by interviewing and learning from a variety of violent offenders. This practice was not uncommon, but it was highly controversial: people worried that if we came to understand the criminal too well, then we might excuse (and not punish) his or her behavior.

And there was never a question that New York City would be the setting in my books.  I find the city and its history endlessly fascinating.

Alistair Sinclair, the mystery solving criminologist, father of a murdered son,  still seeks to rehabilitate criminals.  In Shadow of Gotham, he doesn’t succeed but he doesn’t quit.  Will he and his widowed daughter in law,  Isabel Sinclair, remain Ziele’s sidekicks?  He’s not an apologist but he certainly seems to believe that the law is flexible, particularly where he is concerned.  Is this in your experience or your interest?

Alistair is an egocentric character and that underscores his belief that the law is flexible – especially when he needs it to be!  But in reality, law is meant to be adaptable, in both good ways and bad.  To provide fairness and justice, it must be able to take into account different circumstances.  With this flexibility, people are often able to take advantage of its loopholes and ambiguities.  Alistair’s specific actions, however, are the product of my imagination, and of course they occur in a time period with less professional oversight than we have today.

Anarchy and anarchists in Secret of the White Rose; and the 1904 General Slocum Ferry Disaster in Shadow of Gotham.  Neither subject nor event is wholly central to the mystery but both add color and context, maybe even a foil in Secret of the White Rose.  Do you prefer realistic rather than fictional color?  Do you believe that real events contribute to authenticity in fiction?

I write historical fiction, creating a world that’s part-real and part-invented, but that should always remain grounded in the spirit of the times.  I’d like to think that blend – of the real and the imagined –  is actually part of historical fiction’s appeal. My standard is to make sure that what I invent could have happened even if it didn’t.  And real events do help contribute to my goal of authenticity.
I won’t ask but you can tell us if Simon Ziele and Isabel Sinclair eventually become a couple.
And I shouldn’t tell … but Isabella and Simon will definitely become closer in future novels despite the huge obstacle of their class differences.  Simon’s feelings of tremendous guilt over Hannah’s death are also an issue.  But, as the series grows, you never know…

A Curtain Falls is your 2nd book published in 2010.  How has your process evolved? Can your readers count on one book a year?

My process has become more professional out of necessity.  With any first book, authors have the luxury of time.  But afterwards, they have a contract, an editor, and a deadline –a need for regular progress.  But with more experience, that process does become easier.

Both readers and publishers do like the “one book a year” model, so it’s always a goal.

But timelines can vary when the project calls for it – as my next one does.  My next novel will be a departure from the historicals, as I’m working on a contemporary thriller about a secret FBI unit.  Like the Ziele series, it will be oriented toward forensic science – a reflection of my continuing fascination with its importance to crime-solving.  Hopefully it will be worth the wait!

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