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Gone, for good

Michele Weinstat Miller’s latest thriller, Gone by Morning, will keep readers up, turning pages long after bedtime.

This is the Washington Heights-based author’s fourth and, some critics would argue, best book to date.

Called “well-plotted and brilliantly written” by fellow writer Patricia Gibney (author of the Detective Lottie Parker novels), the early reviews are strong. Publishers Weekly wrote, “The twists and turns will keep readers spellbound.” Kirkus Reviews called her “Mary Higgins Clark with teeth.”

The book starts with a bang as bombs explode in the subway and a missing prostitute turns up dead. When a young woman and her mysterious neighbor start putting clues together, it lands them both in danger.

With much of the action taking place in Northern Manhattan, Miller said, “New York is almost like a character in the book.”

Readers of Miller’s earlier novel Widows-In-Law will notice recurring characters and themes. Chief among them are drug addiction, incarceration, and a hard-won metamorphosis from a trouble-ridden early life into a mature force to be reckoned with.

If Miller’s books are powerful and feel authentic, it’s because she writes from experience. As a young woman, she also developed a habit that led to jail time and a felony conviction. Fast forward thirty years, Miller is an attorney with an impressive resume. She recently accepted a position as General Counsel at The Fortune Society, which provides services for formerly incarcerated individuals. Before that, she was the Director of Enforcement for the city’s Conflicts of Interest Board.

“[We] regulated conflicts for 300,000 city employees and elected officials, including the mayor,” said Miller.

Her own demons might be exorcised by her considerable literary talents, but the book’s message goes deeper.

“This is about unequal access to justice, and the extremes of wealth and power being so great that it warps every aspect of our lives, and particularly the justice system,” she said. One of the characters has a felony conviction, and as the police circle around her as a person of interest, her rights and dignity evaporate.

Miller did a lot of research on strippers and prostitutes for the book. She said both prostitutes and female addicts are frequently murdered and their killers are rarely caught. “The women are vulnerable,” she said. “They are looked at as criminals and lesser beings and it is very hard to get them the protection that they need.”

As a formerly incarcerated person with a felony conviction, Miller knows how hard it is to gain acceptance in society and feel safe. With people come out of addiction with a felony conviction, she said, there is a level of trauma that never fully subsides.

“I can tell you, from being at The Fortune Society, I see the level of trauma on people who have been incarcerated, who have been beaten down by the system, and it makes it really hard for them to be able to turn the page. And then, our country is so judgmental about it, that it’s constantly a scarlet letter on top of the traumas,” she said. “That seems to be universally true, that it’s a traumatizing and scarring experience.”

Her own experiences are somewhat blunted by being a white woman with the advantages of therapy and education. “There’s a certain amount of privilege that comes with that,” she said. “There’s some studies that show that a white convicted felon is about on par, in terms of employment discrimination, as a black male with no conviction. I’ve had a lot of grace in being able to succeed.”

But the issues never completely recede, especially when job hunting. “I go through quite a lot of discomfort in interviews, talking about my drug use in my 20’s at 50 for an executive position,” she said. “Do you go in, say it first, and then they don’t have a chance to get a good impression because you’re talking about something that is totally foreign to what you are doing in an interview?” she said.  “Or do you wait? And then they catch it on Google and look at you like you were trying to hide something.”

That happened to Miller. On one job interview (her third with that firm), the CEO and board chairman mentioned that they found something during a background check. “I was like slapping my forehead,” she said. “Oh, I forgot about 30 years ago, right.”

The book’s main character has also been out of jail for decades.

“But she’s still got that vulnerability,” said Miller, whose many achievements include notching roller disco championships.

“And that’s a recurring thing for her,” she added. “That vulnerability from the past, rearing its head and making you unable to protect yourself.”

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