Pintoff is the Edgar® Award winning author of In The Shadow of
Gotham. Her work has also been nominated for a number of crime fiction
awards. A former attorney (avid reader of crime fiction), she
is now a full time writer she lives in Manhattan’s Upper West
For those of us who don’t know much about you would you mind
giving us a bit of background information?
I got the chance of
a lifetime when my first manuscript won a writing contest. It
was the annual unpublished mystery contest that Minotaur Books sponsors
with Mystery Writers of America. And the prize was what every
would-be writer desires most a publishing contract.
That manuscript was In
the Shadow of Gotham. And a year later, it was
on bookstore shelves everywhere.
Have you always wanted to write?
Yes – as
is probably natural for anyone who loves reading stories as much as I
do. And like most fiction writers, I’ve always
written extensively – even when I was doing other
What were you looking for in a novel that made historical crime fiction
became fascinated by early criminal science and how it was being used
to solve crime at the turn of the last century. By 1905, more
innovative criminal scientists were beginning to challenge the
prevailing opinion that criminal behavior resulted from a flaw of
nature – a 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, and then we might excuse (and not
punish) his or her behavior.
Can you tell us a bit about the characters that you created? Are they
based on people that you know?
I came up with a
pair of heroes who are flawed and unlikely partners. My
criminologist, Alistair Sinclair, is loosely based on one of my law
professors at Columbia – someone who was as academically
brilliant as he was enamored of the high life in NYC. I
conceived of the down-to-earth Simon Ziele to be his perfect
foil. Simon’s character is loosely drawn from the
best traits of certain people I’ve known.
Alistair’s academic learning complements Simon’s
What makes a character real for you? Must you work out
everything about them before hand or do you just let it flow?
latter. I work out important traits of characters beforehand
– but it’s only through the writing process that
characters begin to flesh out and become
In The Shadow of
Gotham has been likened to Caleb Carr’s The Alienist.
How do you feel about having your book compared to such a novel?
always taken it as a compliment and been extremely flattered.
I’m a huge fan of his work, not to mention that of other
terrific writers who’ve found early New York to provide a
rich setting, such as E.L. Doctorow and Jed
What was the impetus for the novel?
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
brilliant and passionately devoted to his subject – but
egocentric to the point of dangerous folly. Someone who would be just
as enamored of New York City's high society as he was his academic
passions. And almost immediately after I had conceived of my
criminologist, the ideas kept coming What if ... there had been a
terrible, senseless crime? What if ... my criminologist believed he
knew the killer responsible – because he had interviewed him,
come to know him? What if ... he had covered up the killer's violent
history to further his own research?
Soon I had conceived not only of my
dedicated but self-absorbed criminologist, Alistair Sinclair, but also
Simon Ziele, the down-to-earth detective who would more than be his
What made you
decide to write a series instead of a standalone novel?
Most of my favorite crime fiction writers are series writers
– so that was the tradition I saw myself entering.
But I’m sure there’s a standalone in my future as
Your books are set in New York, did you deliberately decide to set your
series in New York?
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.
There is also a great sense of place in the novel In The Shadow of Gotham
and it is also very atmospheric. Was this intentional?
I see New York as an important character in the book. 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 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.
Your lead character Detective Simon Ziele is engaged with what is at
the turn of the century the first use of criminology and forensic
science to investigate crimes. Are you interested in forensic science?
Criminology is a
passion of mine, and I introduce elements of “new”
science in each book - fingerprinting in the first, graphology in the
second, and ballistics testing in the third (experts had just
discovered that is was possible to match a particular gun to the bullet
it had fired).
And why did you believe that this would be an interesting topic?
The early 1900s
were a time of rapid advancement in criminal science. I love
the zeitgeist of this era, itself characterized by a tremendous faith
in possibility. People - especially scientists - believed
that the next big discovery was just around the corner, certain to
change everything for the better.
How would you describe your books to someone who is about to read them
for the first time?
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
1,000 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.
Ziele’s personal loss and humble beginnings are central to
his character and tenacity as a police detective. In his
first murder case following that tragedy, noted criminologist Alistair
Sinclair complicates his investigation. Alistair is convinced the
killer is someone he interviewed in the course of his experimental
research into the criminal mind. And though Ziele remains suspicious
that the solution may not be so simple, he works with Alistair and
proves himself more than up to the task of adapting tried-and-true
detective methods to the sometimes-unorthodox innovations of new
Who were your influences when you decided to start writing?
Do other books still influence your writing and if so what
other types of writing are you attracted to?
Jeffrey Deaver for
what he does with suspense and modern-day forensics, P.D. James for her
mastery of character and psychology, and Dennis Lehane for his terrific
surprise endings. I’ve also been inspired by
traditional masters like Dickens, who experimented with narrative form
through serialization - always finding ways to keep readers hooked
until the next installment.
Were you a big reader of crime fiction before you started writing?
I was and still am
a voracious reader of crime fiction. I became hooked when I
read my first Nancy Drew novel – and crime fiction has been
my favourite genre ever since.
Is there a crime novel or novel you wish that you had written?
Since every writer
has her own style, I’ve never considered that particular
question. But I constantly marvel at the way my favourite
writers develop a great plot or create a uniquely memorablecharacter.
Do you still find the time to read?
Every terrific writer I know is first and foremost a great
reader. And since my own goal is to grow as a writer with
each book, my own reading is part of my education.
Do you have a work schedule?
I write every
day. Because I have a young daughter, my most productive
hours are early morning before she wakes, and then between 9 and 330
when she’s in school.
Plot or character?
hard question, because both are important to me. And while
plot comes first in terms of my book planning, I’m aware that
character is the lifeblood of any story. The books I love
best are those that captured my heart with their characters.
And in a good series, character is essential. Showing emotional
development is both the most challenging part of continuing 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. To me, this challenge is especially interesting in the case of
Ziele, who is recovering from a deep depression when we first meet him
in In the Shadow of
Gotham. In A Curtain Falls, we see him coming out of that
and living his life more fully – both personally and
The Shadow of Gotham not only won the Edgar Award®
for Best First Novel in 2010 and the Mystery Writers of America/ St
Martin’s Minotaur First Crime Novel Award in 2008, but it was
also nominated for an Agatha and Anthony Award for Best First Novel and
also the Macavity Award for Best Historical Novel. Were you
surprised about the amount of recognition that it received and has this
had a knock on effect on your subsequent novel?
I was surprised
– and I’ve been very fortunate. In
addition to being incredibly honoured by these awards –
I’m aware that they have smoothed my entry into a very
crowded mystery field. My sense is that those who liked my first book
went on to read the second, and from reader comments, most enjoy the
direction the series is taking.
A Curtain Falls
is your second novel and it is set amidst the theatre? What
drew you to this?
I thought the
theatre was the perfect setting for a plot about greed, jealousy and
the obsessive desire for fame. I was able to incorporate my long-time
fascination with the type of murderer who is compelled not only to
kill, but also to write about it. These men - for so far,
they have universally been male - have been theatrical and fame seeking
in their own, distinctive ways. From Jack the Ripper to BTK,
Albert Fish to the Austrian killer Jack Unterweger, we’ve
seen very different examples in real life history. I draw
upon each of them in some way in creating the “series
killer” who stalks the actresses of A Curtain Falls.
Your third book is a Secret
of the White Rose and this time Detective Simon Ziele
finds himself investigating the murder of a judge and thus finds
himself within the judicial world in New York City. How
interesting did you find the research for this novel.
This book takes
Simon Ziele into the world of New York’s legal elite
– and the city’s anarchist underbelly –
when the judge presiding over the trial of a notorious anarchist is
murdered. The research was fascinating, and there are obvious
parallels between the anarchist attacks of the early twentieth century
and the terrorist attacks of today.
What do you enjoy doing when you are not writing?
I have three
passions: My family. Books. And travel.
What do you find the most difficult when you are writing?
beginning. The start of a new project – the blank
page – can be terrifying. But then my ideas and
words begin fitting together, the story takes hold, and anything is
And finally, can you tell us what are you working on at the
reviewed the proofs of my third novel, which will release in the US
this May. My next project will be a departure from the
historicals, as I’m working on a contemporary thriller about
a secret FBI unit. But like the Ziele series, it will be
heavily forensic – a reflection of my continuing fascination
with all forensic science.
Published by Penguin £6.99 December 2010