Con Lehane’s story isn’t so dissimilar from those of numerous other modern fiction authors. After winning favorable reviews for his debut novel, 2002’s Beware the Solitary Drinker—a rather intricate amateur-sleuth mystery, set in 1983 among the plenteous bars and embittered tipplers of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and starring a failed law student, sometime-actor, and veteran bartender, Brian McNulty—he sought to fan that spark of celebrity into a prosperous book-writing career. However, his follow-up works—What Goes Around Comes Around (2005) and Death at the Old Hotel (2007)—failed to set the reading world on fire, and his publisher dropped the series. His editor told Lehane he should try penning a very different sort of book next—“something no one ever thought of before that could star Matt Damon” in a film version. His agent suggested he become famous (she didn’t specify for what), and then New York publishing houses would be clamoring for his every word on paper.
Instead, Lehane—a Connecticut-reared ex-bartender, union organizer, labor journalist, and college professor who now lives just outside Washington, D.C.—latched onto an idea from his editor. She thought it might be interesting for him to concoct a tale of criminal intent and investigative diligence set in the New York Public Library’s historic main branch at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street in Midtown Manhattan. (You know, the Beaux-Arts landmark fronted by a brace of sculpted lions, “Patience” and “Fortitude.”) Although lacking a contract or promise of publication, Lehane devoted himself to the task, toiling away in that very building’s compact Frederick Lewis Allen Memorial Room, until (after one failed, never-published effort) he finally produced Murder at the 42nd Street Library, the opening entry in a briskly narrated new series built around Raymond Ambler, the middle-aged curator of that marble institution’s fictitious crime-fiction collection.
This whodunit kicks off with the sound of gunfire shattering the library’s customary quietude. A researcher named James Donnelly has been murdered by an unknown (and swiftly escaping) gunman, drawing police attention, but also the curiosity of Ambler, a former up-and-coming American literature scholar whose years of laboring among crime and mystery fiction have left him with the notion that he can solve crimes himself. With the aid of another librarian, Adele Morgan, Ambler soon discovers a heated rivalry between Donnelly and Maximilian Wagner, an ill-mannered, “scandal-mongering sensationalist” who is composing a biography of Nelson Yates, a contemporary mystery novelist whose papers the library recently acquired through questionable means. As Ambler and his homicide detective pal from the New York Police Department (NYPD), Mike Cosgrove, pursue this case, they turn up more bodies, a long-ago sex scandal, and links between not only the Donnelly, Wagner, and Yates families but also Harry Larkin, the library’s head of Special Collections. In addition to being a stimulating tale of competition and connivance, Murder at the 42nd Street Library is also an unabashed love letter to Manhattan, past and present.
I recently asked Lehane about the ingredients of his new series.
As I understand it, you have more than a little personal history with the library setting of your latest novel.
If you check my first book, Beware the Solitary Drinker, you’ll find that McNulty reads through some back issues of New York newspapers at the 42nd Street Library to get a handle on one of the suspects he’s checking on. I wrote a piece for Mystery Readers Journal (it’s on my Web site) about one of my early experiences in the 42nd Street Library when I was in high school. During college, particularly in my later years when I thought of myself as an intellectual (certainly a self-designation), I did research there on obscure proletarian writers and such things. At one point, I thought I was going to write a book on Willie Sutton (the legendary bank robber of my youth) and spent some time doing research on him. Sitting in the main reading room with its rows and rows of shiny oak tables and bronze lamps, surrounded by shelves and shelves of books, and calling up materials from the stacks in the bowels of the library, you can’t help but feel like a scholar.
After employing bartender Brian McNulty as the protagonist in three mystery novels, you’ve now introduced a new snoop, Ray Ambler, in Murder at the 42nd Street Library. Are both men based on people you’ve known? And what do they have in common with you?
That’s not so easy to answer. I knew where McNulty came from—I can picture the guy I based him on. He was a bartender from a joint downtown that was more upscale than the one I worked in—downtown in this instance would be [New York City] below 72nd Street. He lived in the neighborhood where I worked and lived—the Upper West Side, above 96th Street, the badlands in those days. What stuck with me about him—like a lot of bartenders, he was a rambler-gambler sort—was he made sure every week he paid his child support. In those days, bartenders got paid mostly in cash, so it took some effort to do that. This guy and other bartenders I knew had a kind of principled way of being, despite living somewhat reprobate lives. So that was McNulty. Tom Nolan, in a [Wall Street Journal] review, called him a “morally rumpled Manhattan bartender.”
Ray Ambler is different. I’m not sure where he came from. Well, actually I do know but I’m hesitant to say (that “bearing no resemblance to anyone living or dead” sort of thing). If I write my autobiography, like Mark Twain, to be published 100 years after my death, I’ll reveal it in there. At any rate, he was not someone I knew, and library work or curating collections in libraries was not a life I knew viscerally like bartending.
I learned a lot in those months, nearly a year, that I spent as a reader in the Frederick Lewis Allen Room….I got a sense of librarians sort of by osmosis, by being in the library, lurking, keeping my ears open. In the end, Ambler, McNulty: c’est moi. I’d also spent a whole book with Ambler (the one not published) so I got to know him pretty well before he appeared in Murder at the 42nd Street Library. He was slightly different in that first book—a historian and not the curator of the crime-fiction collection. So, as I said, I got to know him and could tinker with him a bit for the second book.
I always find it interesting to read your novels, because you’re a demon for complicated plot twists and hidden motives. Which authors have been most influential in leading you to construct your mysteries as you do?
My editor said when I was beginning the second Ambler book, “Try to make it simple. You have enough going on in that last book for two or three mysteries.” I don’t try to obfuscate. I don’t try to make it difficult for the reader. But I don’t like to explain. I try to write so I don’t have to explain, and this might require the reader to do some work. I don’t watch TV shows very often. When I do watch them sometimes, a lot of times, what’s going to happen next in a show is obvious to me—the body lying in the tub isn’t really dead, despite the axe sticking out of his head; he’s going to bounce back up in a minute, and so he does. That’s not the same thing as the suspense Hitchcock talks about where the viewer knows there’s a bomb under the table and the card players don’t. The first is just something predictable happening. I’ve been accused of being predictable myself. But I don’t like it. I try not to be predictable….
I’m very much influenced by [Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler]. They’re why I began writing mysteries. But I don’t think I write like them, except maybe a little bit in tone with McNulty, the mean streets sort of thing. Ross Macdonald is who I think I’m most like—not that I’d put myself in the same league. Megan Abbott, who read Murder at the 42nd Street Library early on, made that connection of secrets in the past working themselves out in the present.
It’s quite conventional in this genre to pair an amateur sleuth, like Ray Ambler, with a police detective—in your case, Mike Cosgrove. What does Cosgrove bring to Ambler’s adventures other than being an insider at the NYPD and someone who’s convenient to call whenever he stumbles over a corpse?
In the first Ambler book, the one that wasn’t published, Ambler’s partner, so to speak, was an African-American library police detective. I don’t remember why I changed him. You always like to have a cop in an amateur detective novel for the reason you mentioned, sometimes as a foil—think of Sam Spade’s dealings with the police—sometimes as a sort of partner. (There’s been too much use of that cop as a boyfriend or girlfriend [sort of thing], if you ask me.)…I’ve read a lot of European crime fiction, most of it police procedurals. The detectives in those series were thoughtful, brooding, empathetic sorts. I liked them and liked how you could see society and suffering humanity through them. I had an inkling I might want to write from that sort of perspective. I wasn’t sure I could do a police procedural, so I came up with Mike Cosgrove to be my police procedural. He’s in the second Ambler book, too. In the second book, Ambler has about half the book to tell his story and Adele and Cosgrove split the other half. I’d like all of them to grow and be interesting, complex characters. Maybe also Harry Larkin, Ambler’s boss, the former Jesuit.
Then, of course, there’s Brian McNulty. He takes a few turns through Murder at the 42nd Street Library, as well. Do you see him returning in future Ambler yarns? What does he contribute to these books, or is he just fun to write about?
First of all, he needed the work. And I will try to keep him working, even if it’s a bit part. He’s an actor, remember? I reminded him of something Stanislavsky said: “There are no small parts, only small actors.” Really, [McNulty] has a view of the world I liked in the books that featured him as the main character. I didn’t want to stop writing about him when the publisher killed the series. And I want to have the view he embodies in the new series. I might have created another character to embody that view. In fact, I did kind of create another character. This McNulty is not quite the other McNulty. In the new series, the story is larger than in the McNulty books. I like the larger canvas. I don’t plan a book. Things come up and I sort of see where they lead me. I write traditional mysteries. That’s the framework, the structure. There are conventions I follow—no tennis without a net here. As long as I follow them, I like to let situations develop and characters grow organically, from the story.
What can we expect from your next Ray Ambler novel?
The second book has to do with a retired NYPD Intelligence Division detective turned thriller writer who wants to donate his papers to the library’s crime-fiction collection, an Arab scholar working in the library’s collection of Oriental manuscripts, secrets in the past, and murders in the present.
J. Kingston Pierce is both the editor of The Rap Sheet and the senior editor of January Magazine.