Edgar-winner Stefanie Pintoff delivers her third mystery set in early 20th-century New York City, Secret of the White Rose.
What came first—the plot for your first novel or your two leads, criminologist Alistair Sinclair and Det. Simon Ziele?
When I first decided to write crime fiction, I realized that what intrigued me was the challenge of creating an imperfect profiler. Someone who would be cutting-edge and unorthodox, passionately devoted to his subject, but egocentric to the point of folly. That someone became Alistair Sinclair. Then I created the detective who would be his perfect foil—the down-to-earth Simon Ziele, whose personal losses and humble beginnings are central to his character and tenacity as a police detective. The series also grows out of my fascination with early criminal science and how it was being used to solve crime at the turn of the last century. The changes that were being introduced would revolutionize investigative procedure as scientists turned their attention from fingerprints to hairs, fibers, and more. The progress was incredible, enabling the French scientist Locard to formalize his exchange principle (our modern understanding that every physical contact leaves a trace) by 1927.
Do the events in your latest book parallel New York today in any way?
For Secret of the White Rose, I wanted to explore the anarchist threat that was part of early 1900s New York City, creating a time of uncertainty much like the present, where we live with the constant threat of terrorism. My specific inspiration was a 1908 anarchist bomb that went off in Union Square. It was meant to kill policemen, but it exploded prematurely and instead killed passersby. Many people seem surprised by the modernity of the early 1900s. But by 1906, Ziele's world was filled with motorcars (both electric and gas), an early form of air-conditioning (used in many Broadway theaters), and even bulletproof vests.
What are your most valuable research sources?
Like most historical writers, I use a variety of sources, from libraries to contemporary newspapers to old photograph collections. I love the 1906 Pocket Guide to New York City. Since I'm essentially a visitor to the world of the past, it's a treasure trove of vital information, including lists of restaurants and hotels as well as subway and ferry schedules. The schedules show that Ziele could make it downtown from the Upper West Side faster than I can today!
Who are your literary role models?
Jeffery Deaver for what he does with suspense and modern-day forensics, P.D. James and Louise Penny for their mastery of character and psychology, and Dennis Lehane for his morally complicated endings.