This first book in an irresistible new series introduces librarian and reluctant sleuth Raymond Ambler, a doggedly curious fellow who uncovers murderous secrets hidden behind the majestic marble façade of New York City’s landmark 42nd Street Library.
Murder at the 42nd Street Library follows Ambler and his partners in crime-solving as they track down a killer, shining a light on the dark deeds and secret relationships that are hidden deep inside the famous flagship building at the corner of 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue.
In their search for the reasons behind the murder, Ambler and his crew uncover sinister, and profoundly disturbing, relationships among the scholars studying in the iconic library. Included among the players are a celebrated mystery writer who has donated his papers to the library’s crime fiction collection; that writer’s long-missing daughter, a prominent New York society woman with a hidden past, and more than one of Ambler’s colleagues at the library. Shocking revelations lead inexorably to the traumatic events that follow—the reading room will never be the same.
About the Author
Con Lehane is a mystery writer, living outside Washington, DC. Murder at the 42nd Street Library is the first in his series featuring Raymond Ambler, curator of the 42nd Street Library’s (fictional) crime fiction collection. He's also the author of the novels featuring New York City bartender Brian McNulty. Over the years, he (Lehane, that is) has been a college professor, union organizer, labor journalist, and has tended bar at two-dozen or so drinking establishments. He teaches fiction writing and mystery writing at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland.
Read an Excerpt
Murder at the 42nd Street Library
By Con Lehane
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2016 Con Lehane
All rights reserved.
The morning was chilly, damp, and gray, an April Friday morning in a Brooklyn cemetery. Early April shouldn't be so cold, but such cruel days descended on New York almost every spring. The damp, chilly air, portending rain, reminded Raymond Ambler of playing baseball as a boy on such a day, the grass recently starting to grow in green, forsythia bright yellow against the dull gray of the day, daffodils bobbing in the cold wind in the yards of row houses across the street from the parade grounds in Windsor Terrace. Your hand stung if you caught a line drive and both hands stung unmercifully if you held the bat too loosely when you hit the ball.
Ambler shivered as he waited in the chilly wind, flecked with drops of rain, for Harry Larkin, his friend and supervisor at the 42nd Street library. That Harry was late wasn't surprising. A medieval historian, former Jesuit, and absent-minded scholar, Harry wasn't noted for his promptness. He ran the library's Special Collections Division as haphazardly as the proprietor of one of the dust-covered odds-and-ends stores you once found along Broadway below 34th Street before the garment district began to gentrify. What you were looking for might be there in the store, but the proprietor was the only person with a hope of finding it.
Adele Morgan, who also worked in Special Collections, where Ambler was the curator of the collection in crime fiction, asked Harry, even though he was no longer a priest, to perform the Catholic burial service for her mother. Ambler hadn't known Adele was Catholic. He came to the funeral because in recent years she'd become his best friend.
For reasons not clear to Ambler, Adele took a liking to him the first day she arrived at the main branch of the library and hung her diploma from the School of Library and Information Science at the University of Iowa on the wall of the cubicle next to his. Since then, with the exuberance of an Iowa cheerleader and the smart-alecky cynicism of a Brooklyn roller-rink queen, she'd taken him under her wing, defending him against the not infrequent fallout from his lack of social graces, pugnacity, and proclivity to take on quixotic battles for truth and justice that no one else much cared about.
He didn't know how old her mother was when she died. He suspected still in her fifties, not much older than him. She'd died quickly after a diagnosis of lung cancer from a lifetime of smoking — Brooklyn girls of her era began smoking cigarettes in front of candy stores and on neighborhood stoops when they were around thirteen.
On the morning of the funeral, he rode in the funeral home limousine with Adele, an arrangement that caused him some embarrassment because Adele's on-again, off-again boyfriend Peter should by rights have been her escort. With no explanation, she took his arm and walked with him from the church to the car, leaving Peter standing on the sidewalk in front of the church. Wearing a black dress, a black veil over her pale face, her lips red with a thin line of lipstick, his friend, whom he'd always thought pretty, became, in her grief, hauntingly beautiful.
"It's not that she died young, still in her prime," Adele said three days earlier when she told Ambler of her mother's death. "She never lived. She died four blocks from the house she grew up in, married young, never left the neighborhood. She went into Manhattan a half-dozen times in her life."
Adele cried in his arms after that, her head pressed against his chest, her tears dampening his shirt. He'd gone with her from the hospital back to the house where she'd lived with her mother since she was a child, except for her time away at college. She'd made him dinner, leftover chicken casserole of some sort that seemed appropriate to the modest, working-class neighborhood in South Brooklyn.
They drank wine. When neighbors called on the phone, she spoke to them briefly. The few who knocked on the door, she spoke to on the stoop. When it got late and Ambler made to leave, she asked him to stay. He slept with her nestled in his arms, both of them fully clothed. Yet at some time during the night, their mouths met. They kissed gently and went back to sleep, Adele still in his arms. When he left in the morning, neither of them mentioned the kiss or their night together.
At the cemetery, by the time Harry finally arrived, tumbling out of a taxi a few rows of gravestones from the burial plot, the chilly wind whipped droplets of rain against Ambler's face. He'd worn only his suit, no topcoat. The same wind pressed Adele's black knit dress against her thighs and carried most of Harry's words off toward Jamaica Bay. The group around the grave was small, mostly women from the neighborhood, most of them past middle age. Fewer than expected showed up because of an informal boycott by the strict-constructionist Catholics who saw the proceedings as sacrilegious because of Harry's defrocked status. Ambler found it strange that Adele seemed to have no relatives.
Harry, normally a cheerful, roly-poly sort, a veritable Friar Tuck, was this day distracted and out of sorts but didn't explain why until after the handful of folks who'd gathered after the funeral at what was now Adele's home, or stopped by carrying chafing dishes of meatballs, tuna salad, and such things, were gone — and after he'd gulped down a good-sized tumbler of brandy.
"Someone was shot in the library?"
"Killed," Harry said. "Murdered. Right in front of my eyes."
"A man who came to my office."
"Who shot him?"
"God, if I know ... a crazed killer."
"Is there any other kind?" Adele asked. She was frozen to the spot, a glass in one hand, bottle in the other, about to pour Ambler a glass of wine.
"A philosophical question," said Ambler. "Does someone need to be insane to commit a murder? Perhaps. Practically speaking, insanity doesn't provide much of a murder defense."
"It wasn't really a question," said Adele.
"The killer got away?"
"It seems so." Harry looked helplessly at Ambler, seeming bewildered by what happened, drifting off into his thoughts or memory every few seconds, staring blankly into space.
* * *
"What now?" Ambler asked Adele. He was helping her wash dishes and wrap and put away leftovers after they'd poured frazzled, tipsy Harry into a car service cab and sent him off.
"I want to get out of this neighborhood as quickly as I can. I'm terrified I'll end up like my mother." Her face was drawn, with lines at the corners of her mouth he hadn't seen before. Her voice was strained.
"Your life will be different than hers," Ambler said.
She straightened up from stuffing the last of the plastic containers of leftovers into the refrigerator and faced him. "How different, Raymond? How will it be different?" She sounded irritated, angry, but really she was sad. "Life is pretty miserable for most people, isn't it? Sad, painful, lonely —" Her eyes sought his, a rebuke; then, in seconds, the sadness returned; her lip quivered. He hesitated before walking closer to her and placing his hand on her shoulder. Leaning into him, her voice small, she said, "I'm missing so much in my life." In another few seconds, she broke away from him.
Adele was pretty, with blondish hair cut short, soft, full lips, and dimples so she looked impish when she smiled. Her prettiness seemed a kind of afterthought, as if she didn't pay much attention to it; even so, he sensed she knew she was pretty. Her sadness made her seem fragile. He didn't know what to say to comfort her. Like her voice, she seemed to have grown smaller. He wanted to take her in his arms. But he didn't think she wanted that. She did want to talk, so he let her.
"She had a house. She made a living," Adele said. Her mother had worked for the telephone company since she graduated high school. "And she had a child she raised by herself. A child was something, even if it was only me." Adele's voice held a good deal of regret. Things had gone wrong in her life. Her father left her mother and her early on. She'd had her own difficulties, an early romance that went badly. She didn't explain and he didn't ask. He sensed that what they spoke about made little difference. Talking kept her connected to someone. When he left, she'd be alone, alone in a different way than she'd ever been.
Later, on the long, jerky train ride back to Manhattan, mired in Adele's sadness, as if it were contagious, he began to think about the murder at the library. The subway car, dingy and dimly lit, with only a few other passengers, tired and bedraggled as he was, had an ominous feel, reminding him he was in the city late at night and danger wasn't far away — not as much danger as in years past, but reason to keep alert. He eyed his fellow passengers and checked the subway's doors each time they opened.
Thinking about the murder depressed him. At the same time, an unsolved, or yet to be solved, homicide piqued his interest. He'd believed since he read Camus in college that taking someone's life for any reason could not be justified. He saw no irony between this belief, a kind of pacifism, and his interest in homicide investigation. Camus's characters battled pestilence without hope but without despair. "The task is impossible," Camus said, "so let us begin."CHAPTER 2
The 42nd Street Library stretches along the west side of Fifth Avenue from 42nd to 40th Street. The landmark beaux arts structure houses the humanities and social sciences collections of the New York Public Library, the largest research collection of any public library in the nation after the Library of Congress.
The collections are available to journalists, historians, and other scholars, graduate students writing dissertations, authors working on books, individuals tracing a family tree, anyone who wants read a newspaper or magazine, and many others. But the books, journals, manuscripts, maps, photographs, newspapers, baseball cards, comic books, don't circulate. The 42nd Street Library is a research library, not a circulating library. Everything stays in the library. Under such an arrangement, it has served the research needs of millions for decades.
The Rose reading room, on the third floor, is two city blocks long with rows and rows of long oak tables and chairs. The tables stretch out on either side of a small foyer and a central desk where readers turn in their call slips and pick up materials that have been retrieved by pages from the seven levels of iron and steel shelving beneath the reading room. The Rose reading room is the largest of a number of reading rooms in the building. The Manuscripts and Archives Division reading room is at the north end of the main room, the Berg Collection of English and American Literature is also on the third floor, along with the Arents Tobacco Collection and the Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle. Throughout the building are other smaller reading rooms housing collections of various sorts, including Ambler's tiny crime fiction collection on the second floor.
On the morning after the funeral, he got to the library early, using the 40th Street entrance, across from the black and gold American Radiator Building — once the proud home office of the eponymous manufacturing company now the Bryant Park Hotel. Two uniformed city cops stood next to the security booth with the library's guard, reminding Ambler, if he needed reminding, that a murder had taken place.
After climbing the marble stairs to the second floor, he sat at his cluttered desk, not unaware of the irony that the bookshelves on the walls around him and on another tier of shelves on a catwalk-like mezzanine above him held many of the finest detective novels ever written. It would be an hour or more before the library opened. In the meantime, he needed to call up the collection of an obscure Dallas mystery writer, Sam Hawkins, who'd written a series of police procedurals in the 1940s featuring a Texas Ranger. A graduate student working on her dissertation e-mailed the library a week earlier requesting the files. He had no idea how she'd found Hawkins or discovered his papers at the library.
The writer died in combat in Korea, leaving no heirs to claim his effects. His papers ended up in Ambler's crime fiction collection because he'd entrusted them along with his books and other worldly possessions to his agent when he went off to war. The agent later donated them to the library and the collection gathered dust in the archive stacks until Ambler found it and added it to the crime fiction collection.
He was filling out the call slips for the boxes when the door banged open and Adele burst into the room. "Have you heard?"
He looked at her blankly.
"The murdered man is Kay Donnelly's ex-husband."
"She's a reader working on the Nelson Yates collection."
He recalled an earnest young woman, probably in her thirties, whom you wouldn't pay much attention to until some liveliness in her eyes suggested her understated manner might be a cover for a more adventurous spirit. "I wouldn't have thought her the type to have an ex-husband."
Adele wrinkled her nose. "I'm surprised you paid so much attention to her. What type of woman does have an ex-husband, by the way? Different I suppose than the type like me who's never had a husband."
Ambler knew he'd said something wrong. He wasn't sure what.
"Actually, Kay is the only one of that crew using the Yates collection who's halfway civil. The head guy's a pompous ass, and his wife's a glamour puss who thinks she shits Baby Ruths."
Ambler lowered the papers he'd been sorting through, to scrutinize Adele as if he weren't quite sure what he'd heard.
"Sorry." She tossed her head like a pony and headed for the door. "An old Brooklyn expression."
As the morning wore on, everyone who worked in the library, it seemed, stopped by his desk, assuming — for no sensible reason — that he knew more than they did about the murder. He told them he had no idea what happened but that in most murders the victim knows the killer, so they shouldn't suspect a killer with a vendetta against the library was on the loose and would pick them off one by one. He doubted he convinced anyone. For most of the day, the snaps and clicks of office door locks echoed along the marble hallways.
The afternoon sunny and mild after the chilly drizzle of the day before, he took his lunch to the terrace behind the library overlooking Bryant Park, where he often sat before work or after lunch in nice weather. A panhandler stumbling past reminded him of the morning he first came to work at the library. On that morning in the mid eighties, you couldn't take three steps into Bryant Park before being accosted by a herd of winos looking for handouts or a parade of skinny, nervous kids whispering, "smoke." A murder wouldn't have been out of place in those days.
A freshly sodded lawn, wrought iron tables and café chairs, sculpted ivy beds, a small, cheerful merry-go-round, and fashionable Manhattanites sipping lattes from the kiosk near Sixth Avenue replaced the scraggly bushes, plastic garbage bags, beer cans, pint wine bottles, used rubbers, and sleeping winos one would have found in the park in those days. Little did he know when it began that the restoration of the park in the early nineties was a harbinger of the sanitizing and homogenizing that would turn Times Square — and soon the rest of Manhattan — into the Mall of America.
Looking up from his ham and brie sandwich — whatever happened to Swiss — he saw a truculent looking man in a well-worn trench coat, open like a sail, striding in his direction and recognized Mike Cosgrove of the NYPD homicide squad.
"Got a minute?" Cosgrove said. The detective's twenty-plus years of dead bodies and senseless killings were carved into his face, his dark eyes blazed out of deep sockets like polished black stones, his hair, now steel gray, was still in the marine crew cut he'd worn in Vietnam. He'd given up smoking some years back, substituting toothpicks, one of which danced across his lips.
"Good to see you, too, Mike." Ambler smiled. Despite their differences in almost all ways possible, he liked Mike Cosgrove. Besides being the only NYPD homicide detective who didn't go ballistic when he tried out his ideas on crime detection on cases he worked on, Mike was observant, and thoughtful — and not always so sure he was right. He pondered things. He had imagination.
Excerpted from Murder at the 42nd Street Library by Con Lehane. Copyright © 2016 Con Lehane. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I had a very difficult time getting into this book. It was very slow at the beginning and didn't hold my interest well. However, I persevered because I have the next in the series and wanted to be sure that I had all the background for that one. I think that part of my problem came with the character names, sometimes the writer used the last name only sometimes the first name and so it was confusing until I got into the story. The plot was good as was the mystery, the writing needed to be a bit crisper I'm hoping for improvements in Book 2.
I really did not enjoy this book. I felt the characters were cliche, and the story was hard to follow. The author writes in extremely long sentences, and sometimes I had to reread certain sentences numerous times just to piece together what he was trying to say. I did like reading all of the details about the New York Public Library. Thanks to Net Galley and the publisher for allowing me to read it in return for an honest review.
[ I received this book free from the publisher through NetGalley. I thank them for their generousity. In exchange, I was simply asked to write an honest review, and post it. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising] “It’s a form of hubris to judge but difficult not to.” Raymond Ambler, head of the crime fiction collection at the 42nd Street Library in New York City gets invloved in a situation he'd only read about in the stacks. It involves crime, murder, kidnapping and coverups. It isn't pretty. It can't be tied up in a bow. And it will change his life. His boss at the library, Harry Larkin is not only witness to a murder, he barely gets by with his own life. He's involved, Ambler knows, but to the extent he is, that's an unknown. Harry's troubled past and those who weave in and out make Ray and his friend Detective Mike Cosgrove question just about everything, and everyone, until they figure it out with an unsatifactory ending. This book tries too hard to be "hard boiled" crime fiction. The convoluted plot isn't easy to follow, but ends prefunctory. I'd love to see what's left on the "cutting room floor". There are too many storylines jostling for space, and some "givens" actually can't be ( My spouse worked within the NYPL system. One glaring problem in the book is the scene with the "Winnie the Pooh" collection which is NOT housed at 42nd, but at Donnell near MOMA), and no one outside the pages can get into the stacks. And finally, the most glaring example: how in the heck did the gun get into one of most secure bildings in Manhattan? This book is OK. I might even read another by the author. However, I wouldn't go out of my way.
I had really high hopes for this book. I love books set in libraries and book stores but some of the characters in the book felt very 2-dimensional. The plot seemed quite slow. I realize that many mystery novels contain a lot of coincidences but the number of coincidences in this book defied any semblance of believability. I enjoyed some of the characters but most of the female characters felt flat. I felt that the organization of the library system was not very believable. I don't know about in NY but librarians in Texas don't have times for the places the protagonist would go for lunch. Also, at least one time he drank alcohol during his lunch hour. I know this is common in Europe but in the US that is generally frowned upon. The book just felt wrong somehow.
Murder at the 42nd Street Library by Con Lehane is a new mystery novel. Raymond Ambler is the curator of the crime fiction collection in the 42nd Street Library in New York that is devoted to research. Ray arrives at work one day to find out that James Donnelly was shot while visiting Harry Larkin, supervisor at the library. Why did someone kill James and shoot at Harry? Ray cannot help but look into the matter. Ray has read so many crime novels, that he would like to try his hand at solving real crimes. James was asking Harry about the Nelson Yates collection the library recently acquired. The library was able to purchase the collection thanks to an anonymous donor. There is something fishy about this collection. Is it somehow connected to the murder? Ray works with Mike Cosgrove, NYPD Homicide Detective to solve the crime. I had a difficult time reading Murder at the 42nd Street Library. I was originally not going to request the book, but then someone said it was such a wonderful novel. I thought that maybe I was wrong with my initial impression, and I requested it. I should have listened to my inner voice. The novel is oddly (awkwardly) written. It is an extremely convoluted novel. There is really too much going on and the writer seemed to delight in using big words when they were not needed. Big words can be fun (do not judge), but they should not be used to just to show off (which is what it felt like in this book). You are never quite sure who is talking sometimes and the way the book is written just leads to confusion. I have to admit that after a while I just started speed reading towards the end. Some sections you have to read, and then reread trying to figure out (you should only have to do that with math and science textbooks). I loved the idea of a mystery set at a big research library, but the execution was severely lacking. The novel needs a severe rewrite in order to be enjoyable (actually, just keep the premise and start over with everything else including the characters). The writer tried to make a very complex mystery, but did not succeed. A reader can easily figure out the who committed the crime. I give Murder at the 42nd Street Library 2 out of 5 stars (I have to admit that I am being generous). I received a complimentary copy of the book from NetGalley (and the publisher) in exchange for an honest review of the novel.
The author seems to choose protagonists with offbeat professions. In a prior series, the protagonist was a bartender (who appears in a minor role in this novel). Now, in the first in a new series, it is Raymond Ambler, a librarian who is no less a curator of the crime fiction collection in the world-famous 42md Street Library in New York City. It is not clear why the selection, however, since his employment plays no part in his role, although he does interact with a detective to solve crimes. Apparently the setting is chosen because the various victims are literary individuals, including a best-selling author whose collection of papers is obtained by the library, and the first of several murders takes place in a second floor reading room (the second occurs just outside, in the adjoining Bryant Park), The various suspects are all associated with each other from a time when they taught at an upstate college and are involved some way in reading the papers in preparation for writing a biography of the aforementioned author. Unfortunately this series gets off to an uneven start, with a convoluted plot and cumbersome writing. In fact, it is questionable whether the reader can even discern which character is the actual murderer. It is an interesting idea for a librarian-protagonist. Perhaps in future additions to the series, we will find Mr. Ambler applying his skills to uncovering clues though the resources of a library, rather than his own intuition, which rarely is explained. Having thoroughly enjoyed Mr. Lehane’s writing in the past, we look forward to the next in this new series.
The title intrigued me and I was looking forward to reading this book. I was disappointed from the very first page, the story telling was out of sync and it felt very jumbled together. Since this is a new to me author, I am only basing this opinion and review on what I did read. I didn't find the characters likable and I could not relate to any of them. I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley.com in exchange for my fair and honest review.