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The Bone Vault

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The Bone Vault by Linda Fairstein (2003) is a fun and interesting read for lovers of detective and mystery fiction. It’s a welcome distraction on long winter evenings to keep you from going nuts with cabin fever.

It’s all the more interesting if you know a little about the real-life background of its author Linda Fairstein.

Linda Fairstein in real life was a prosecutor — a well-known prosecutor. She recently retired after 30 years heading up the Manhattan District Attorney’s Sex Crimes Unit. She and her unit were part of the inspiration for the Law and Order SVU television show. (Yes, Linda Fairstein is the role model for the gorgeous blond prosecutor. And yes, from her pictures Linda Fairstein herself is gorgeous and blond.)

Fairstein is credited with changing the way crimes like rape and incest were handled by the judicial system. Decades ago it was tough to get a conviction for rape and other sex crimes. Fairstein and her unit changed all that, by painstakingly working closely with police to develop the evidence needed for a successful prosecution. And by not backing down in the face of difficult-to-win cases. In the process, she became something of a legend in New York City.

The Bone Vault is not about sex crimes, however. It’s about murder. And the dirty little secrets in some of the world’s best known museums.

The main character is Alexandra Cooper, Fairstein’s alter ego. Just like Fairstein, Cooper is the head of the Manhattan D.A.’s Sex Crimes Unit. She has a close working relationship and friendship with two of the police officers she interacts with daily. Much of the “fun” part of reading the book comes from the interplay between Cooper and the two officers, Mercer and Mike. And by following her efforts to protect herself from the Machievellian machinations of her weasly supervisor.

The interesting part of the book comes from all the information she provides about the judicial system and the inner workings of museums. Especially the information about two museums that figure in the book: the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New York Museum of Natural History.

The book starts with a high society opening at the Met. It quickly moves to the discovery of the body of a museum curator in an Egyptian sarcophagus. Turns out the curator died of arsenic poisoning, and arsenic is widely used by museum personnel. And the body was perfectly preserved for many months. Then the Director of the Metropolitan Museum abruptly resigns. And the mystery builds.

From there the whirlwind events culminate in the discovery of the killer’s identity. Along the way you learn the dirty little secret. Without giving away the secret, which is part of the mystery, it is easy to guess that it is all about bones, hence the title “The Bone Vault.”

In the book, you learn a great deal about the inner working of great museums. If you are a fan of museums, you will find the book especially interesting.

The book’s plot and character development are a little weak, but not fatally so. If there is one area where Fairstein could improve her writing, it would be to develop her characters better before leading up to the culminating scene where the mystery is solved.

As with all Fairstein’s books, it feels as if she herself didn’t quite know how the book was going to end. And that all of a sudden she forces an ending, without properly leading up to it.

But, despite this weakness, The Bone Vault is a mystery novel definitely worth reading. All the more so if you are interested in museums and the television series Law and Order SVU, and other tidbits about current American culture.

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