Sisters in Crime

Written by Lina Zeldovich on . Posted in Posts.


“Those folks know everything about killing
people,” a friend said while pointing at the Muhlenberg Library on the corner
of West 23rd Street and Seventh Avenue. My friend shared my addiction for
spine-tingling crime fiction and, supposedly, this library harbored a secret
society of experts on all things sinister who organized monthly meetings to
indulge in discussions of murder and mayhem. As a Russian-born New Yorker who
fell in love with American suspense novels and aspired to write my own, I was
hooked.

On the third Thursday of the following month,
the specially programmed elevator took me to the top floor meeting room, usually
inaccessible to the general public. I expected a crowd of rugged men. Instead,
I found a room full of women, as refined and affectionate as they later proved
to be wicked and wacky.

“Welcome, New Blood,” a woman said in greeting
as she ushered me in. “Today our featured speaker is a forensic psychologist
and the topic is ‘Ten Character Traits Your Serial Killer Must Have.’” An hour
later, I was done in, deep in cahoots with this vicious and frighteningly
intelligent group of femme fatales, who called themselves Sisters in Crime. And
crime they loved.

Sisters in Crime, or SinC, was conceived in1986 by bestselling author Sara Paretsky and B.J. Rahn, a Hunter
College English professor and detective scholar. Shortly after,
mystery writer Sandra Scoppettone invited Edgar Symposium guests for breakfast
at her Soho loft, where SinC was officially born. The organization’s mission:
to help women get recognition in the suspense genre, traditionally a
male-dominated field.

At
first, the
gang gathered at Scoppettone’s apartment, and later at the Partners and Crime
Bookshop. Their current (and hopefully permanent) hideout is at the century-old
Muhlenberg branch of the New York Public library.

“The librarian, Daria,
was happy to have a group of writers,” explains author Cynthia Baxter, who
was president at the time and found the bookish group its elegant brick-and-limestone home. “It was a large,
private space near subways and Penn Station with lots
of restaurants nearby. And I liked the privacy part!”

I
found that joining SinC was unexpectedly easy. While other writers’ unions
required published clips, any conspiring crime aficionado could enlist. No
previous murderous experience was necessary for the initiation—just the desire
alone was enough. By the end of the night, I filled out the form—which required
a $40 membership fee—and later sent in a $35 dollar check for the chapter’s
dues. The following week, I joined their online writers’ critique forum,
GUppies, which stands for the Great Unpublished, and soon began to see my
stories in print.

SinC has grown into an international
organization of mystery, thriller and noir lovers comprised of 48 chapters
worldwide, with members ranging from scribes to librarians and from publishers
to booksellers with a website (www.sistersincrime.org) that helps connect
writers internationally. It includes such famous figures as queen of suspense Mary Higgins Clark, Charlaine Harris
(whose Sookie Stackhouse mysteries were adapted into the hit HBO series True
Blood)
and award-winning authors Nancy Pickard and Julia Spencer-Fleming.

The New York chapter is one
of the biggest branches, and it hosts monthly events, library readings and craft
workshops. Linda Fairstein, the former district
attorney’s sex crimes unit leader, was once a member and still gives occasional
talks. Literary agents Donna Bagdasarian and Josh Getzler, as well as Johnny
Temple, founder of indie press Akashic Books, share advice on writing query
letters and pitches.

While monthly meetings take place in Chelsea, members’ murderous
intents reach far and wide, and even back in time. S.J. Rozan’s books feature a private eye couple, while Peggy
Earheart and Elizabeth Zelvin invented unlikely sleuths: a blues singer and a
recovering alcoholic. A “Mister Sister,” Kenneth Wishnia, set The Fifth Servant
in the medieval Prague
Jewish Ghetto on the eve of Passover. Stephanie Pintoff’s Edgar-winner, In the Shadow of Gotham, recreates 1905, while Laura Joh
Rowling’s series wears the silk kimonos of 17th-century Japan. At the last Brooklyn Book Fair, a Belgian tourist bought our chapter’s short story collection, Murder New York Style, calling it “the
city’s best literary souvenir.”

An idiosyncratic bunch that plans murders
instead of dinners and plants evidence instead of flowers, we discuss plots,
alibis and the latest DNA breakthroughs at our meetings. Some of us would die
to peek inside the mind of a professional assassin. Others would kill to
temporarily think like the criminally insane. When we creep out of our
Muhlenberg lair, we get our hands dirty. Outfitted in ear plugs and eye
protection, we learned to fire guns at the Ridgewood Rifle Club, while Mike
Maione, a shooting competitor who makes his own bullets at home, taught us how
to defend ourselves against an armed gunman. I totally missed the target, but a
60-year-old retired schoolteacher hit the bull’s eye. On the day we toured the
morgue, the chapter’s president had opera tickets, thus facing a dress code
dilemma. “Basic black,” she finally resolved.

Getting
away with murder isn’t easy, so knowledge is key. Recently, psychology professor
Dr. Kostas Katsavdakis gave us a lecture on forensic profiling of men versus
women, revealing that males attack random victims out of rage while females
assault because of fear or jealousy, and typically one of their kin. Last
month, Joseph Giacalone, a veteran of the Cold Case Squad and John Jay College
professor, spoke about the homicide investigative techniques using the O.J.
Simpson’s trial as a case study. Over the course of the years I’ve met a female P.I. who explained to us
the legal issues of rummaging through a suspect’s garbage, listened to the Deputy Commissioner of the NYC Department
of Corrections tell love sagas of Rikers Island’s inmates,
and have been sniffed
by the NYPD canine unit. Our speakers share true stories that never make the
news and cases that will never be solved. We typically keep them hostage until
they consent to a post-mortem dinner at Bombay Garden around the corner, and
treat them to a hearty meal. So far we’ve loved them all and poisoned
none.

While
clandestine, the chapter’s meetings are open to all bloodthirsty kindred
spirits and typically take place on the third Thursday of the month. For
complete information, visit nysinc.org.

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