With Help From Her Friends, Fairstein’s Cold Hit Is Hot

At the Sept. 14 Four Seasons party celebrating the release of Linda Fairstein’s new crime thriller, Cold Hit , the author basked in the early success of her book. Beaming, garrulous, under a common-sense blonde pageboy, Ms. Fairstein posted herself and her champagne-colored Escada silk cocktail suit next to the stairwell and signed her way down a helixed tower of books. Copies went to WABC-AM radio host John Johnson, Fran Lebowitz, Frank McCourt, Vernon Jordan and her colleagues from her day job running the sex-crimes unit in the Manhattan District Attorney’s office.

Cold Hit revolves around the murder of an art dealer, which sends Ms. Fairstein’s alter ego, sex-crimes unit chief Alexandra Cooper, racing around town from the morgue to fine restaurants like Patroon and Rao’s. Ms. Fairstein’s third book in three years, it was chosen by President Bill Clinton for his vacation reading list, and now, only a month after arriving in stores, has 85,000 copies in print.

“What I bring to the genre is authenticity,” said Ms. Fairstein. “Raw, real and mean,” explained the paperback cover of her first mystery, 1996′s Final Jeopardy . “An authoritative and scary view from one who has battled evil and locked it away,” is how the publisher pegged 1997′s Likely to Die , her second effort.

It didn’t require much snooping at the Four Seasons to discover where Ms. Fairstein gets the names and profiles of her characters–her Rolodex.

“I’m in the book,” volunteered Kim McFadden, who first shows up on page 104. “I’m the benevolent federal prosecutor. Who ever heard of a benevolent federal prosecutor?” asked Ms. McFadden, who once worked in the Southern District in Manhattan and now works in New Jersey.

Her husband, a former prosecutor in the District Attorney’s office in Manhattan (he asked that their family name not be used), made a cameo in Ms. Fairstein’s Likely to Die . Another former assistant district attorney, Ed Broderick, managed to make it into each of the last two books.

Ms. Fairstein’s most significant borrowing is herself. The Alexandra Cooper character–named after an art-lover friend, Alexander Cooper, and the wife of game-show host Ben Stein, Alexandra Denman–holds the same job and eats in the same places as Ms. Fairstein. She just happens to be, in Ms. Fairstein’s words, “younger and blonder than I am.” In the first book, Ms. Cooper has to solve the murder of a beautiful actress shot in the head on Martha’s Vineyard. In the second, she unpuzzles the fatal stabbing of a top neurosurgeon. (In the third, she romances a New York Times reporter–exactly what her boss, Robert Morgenthau, did in real life.) Ms. Fairstein was given a $500,000 advance for her first two books. She declined to share what her advance for Cold Hit was.

The prosecutor’s efforts at verisimilitude have duped some acquaintances who should know better. “Because I write the books in the first person and not the third, people do think, because of the I-I-I, that it’s me. My friends call me up. Actually, family, too,” conceded Ms. Fairstein, mentioning that the fiancé of her alter ego gets killed in an earlier book. “An old classmate came up to me and said, ‘We went to law school together, and I didn’t know that you lost your boyfriend then.’”

“These things aren’t real, and the people aren’t real,” Ms. Fairstein insisted.

But some come close. Ms. Fairstein cast longtime New York Post reporter Mike Pearl as Mickey Diamond, and had him answer the phone the way that Mr. Pearl always wished he could, but never did: “Criminal court press room–where every story’s a crime and every crime’s a story.” Margaret Feerick, a social worker and daughter of Fordham law school dean John Feerick, appears as a social worker. (Mr. Feerick bid $1,000 at a benefit auction to have a Fairstein character named for his daughter.) The fictional prosecutor Warren Murtaugh closely resembles Warren Murray, head of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Trial Bureau 60 for the last 19 years. Like an old-school prosecutor, Mr. Murray wasn’t talking.

“A lot of friends sort of want to be in it and ask to be in it. Some are just a natural part of my life, so a lot of friends are reflected that way,” said Ms. Fairstein. For instance, the hosts of the Four Seasons party, Kelso & Company lawyer and banker Michael Goldberg and his wife Susan, were in the book, with different names.

The party was past bedtime for some whose names Ms. Fairstein used in the book. Vernon and Ann Jordan’s grandson, Mercer, lends his name to Ms. Fairstein’s chief detective. The name of a prosecutor actually belongs to a 6-year-old boy, son of Ms. McFadden. Explained his father: “He’s just learning to read. We discussed it at breakfast. We told him that Mommy and Daddy have a friend who wrote a book. ‘There’s a character named in it after you.’ We took him upstairs to show him. He immediately recognized his name, but he’s still trying to figure out how he got into a thick book.”

Chuck Ruff Arrives

Covington & Burling, the law firm that just welcomed back White House counsel Charles F.C. Ruff, has always been a Washington, D.C., outfit, without a single New York partner. For the longest time, the firm hadn’t thought that a problem. Since 1919, its rock-ribbed but mostly anonymous power lawyers have–with the utmost discretion, and for astronomical fees–whispered to government bureaucrats, dropped notes to Congressmen, drafted proposed international treaties to help clients like General Motors, AT&T and DuPont obtain the desired governmental approvals. Joseph Goulden opened his landmark 1972 book of legal journalism, The Superlawyers, with a chapter on Covington & Burling. It was titled “The Pinnacle of Power.”

But possessing even the greatest Washington influence doesn’t seem to cut it any more in the cranked-up, continent-hopping law trade. So on Sept. 21, Mr. Ruff and his 339 colleagues decided to take over Howard, Smith & Levin, a 60-lawyer Avenue of the Americas firm widely honored, as one recruiter put it, for having “the highest-quality lawyers.” It also boasts leading corporate clients and a median partner take of $650,000 or so. This latest merger is set to begin on Oct. 1.

The strategy behind the haute -pedigree union is simple: Washington insiders get some New York finance guys as partners, the finance guys get insiders, and Philip Howard gets to go to Washington.

Mr. Howard, who started the firm in 1983, once ran unsuccessfully for a City Council seat from Gramercy Park and is currently the chairman of the Municipal Art Society. He is also a civic-minded author. A few years back, he wrote a decent-selling book (more C-SPAN than Linda Fairstein) called The Death of Common Sense: How Law is Suffocating America that argued for the simplification of Federal laws. No lawyer was willing to criticize him publicly, but his attack on obfuscation, were it to come to fruition, is clearly hostile to lawyers’ fondness for paying work. Mr. Howard has been named vice chairman of Covington.

“This makes all the sense in the world for Philip in terms of his political ambitions. It’s certainly a fact of life that Philip’s interested in political things, and of course Covington’s extremely well connected,” said Mr. Howard’s fellow founding partner, Lawrence Darby, who left the firm last year. Mr. Ho-ward insisted that he’s done with electoral politics and instead will concentrate on his work as a citizen-lawyer. “I’m very interested in being a leader and in reforming government positions that are anti-human and tend to drag down our democracy,” he said.

Covington’s brain trust seems most excited about the arrival of the entrepreneurial rain-making of Scott F. Smith and Stephen Infante, who work with software and technology companies. “I am very hopeful we’ll follow their lead; I think they have a vigor and dynamism that will be good for us,” Covington partner Andrew Friedman said, referring to the New York partners in general.

This is merely what Mother would call a nice merger, not a blockbuster. Covington now has 400 lawyers and a couple of smallish offices in London and Brussels–really, what do 400 lawyers get you, when the trans-Atlantic Clifford Chance behemoth is nearly seven times the size, and many other American firms are double it? “It wouldn’t surprise me if they were to merge later with another firm. It does seem to me to be a stepping stone to something larger,” said John Suydam, managing partner of one of Howard, Smith & Levin’s competing mighty-mite firms, O’Sullivan, Graev & Karabell.

Mr. Friedman replied that large mergers were not in the plan. “We want to be a leading firm in strategic places, not all around the globe, just in the important places. Obviously, we think of New York that way.” About time.

You can reach N.Y. Law by confidential e-mail at mfleischer@observer.com