Murder at the 42nd Street Library is the initial offering in Con Lehane’s projected crime series involving major reading institutions and featuring amateur librarian, sleuth Ray Ambler. Murder and mayhem in the venerable stacks of some of the most important libraries and archives: it would seem to be an idea with promise for book lovers. Unfortunately it is a promise unfulfilled.
The novel opens with a bang. A man steps out of a cab in front of the 42nd Street Library. He walks up the steps between the iconic lions to the main entrance. Unaware that he is being followed by a mysterious figure he would likely recognize, he walks up to the second floor and enters the office of the library’s director of special collections.
He glances behind him, sees the mystery figure, and feels the explosion of the bullet that will end his life. Ambler, who curates the library’s crime fiction collection and is something of a crime solving tyro, sets out to find the killer. Another murder follows and the whole ends with a bloodbath of minor proportions—the stuff of many a fine thriller. Why then promise unfulfilled?
First of all, there are too many characters running through Lehane’s pages — too many suspects, but even more disturbingly, too many amateurs sticking their collective noses into police business. And Lehane seems to feel it necessary to present information from almost all of their points of view. There are two homicide detectives, the cliché good cop, bad cop duo. And although this is not a case of dumb cops needing help, it comes close. It seems fairly clear that had Ray and his team of amateurs not inserted themselves into the investigation things might not have degenerated as badly as they did.
Too much of what goes on in the story seems pure co-incidence. Revelations about character’s relationships are tough to believe in the context of the story. Moreover there are too many of these revelations. Verisimilitude gets buried under them. There are too many back stories, and they all make too neat a package.
What the book does best is create a picture of New York that takes the reader up and down the newly gentrified streets of the Lower East Side, mid-town and the Bronx. It spotlights landmarks—the Bronx Zoo, Yankee Stadium, the Flatiron Building, Columbia Unversity, Riverside Park—and makes the city come alive. It is clear that Lehane knows New York City and more important knows how to make it shine on the page.
Given a more believable plot with more realistic characters, Murder in the NYU stacks or wherever the next murder occurs, Lehane may actually deliver on the promise.