Murder at the 42nd Street Library, by Con Lehane

Seven stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Con Lehane, and St. Martin’s Press for providing me with a copy of this book, which allows me to provide you with this review.

In an interesting mystery premise, Lehane takes readers inside the famed 42 Street Library to discover that there is more than reading taking place. As the novel opens, a man is murdered for reasons unknown and the only witness, Director of the Library, Harry Larkin, is unable to identify the assailant. This does not stop Ray Ambler, curator of the crime fiction collection, from honing his amateur sleuth skills. When it becomes clear that there is some connection between the murder and a recently acquired collection of documents from famed author, Nelson Yates, the plot thickens a little more. Ambler tries piecing things together, but is cautioned by a friend serving as homicide detective on the case. With numerous potential suspects, all tied to the library in some way, the case takes many turns and leaves the reader to wonder who could have the ultimate motive. After a series of events finds Nelson Yates killed as well, the suspect list intensifies and there are deep secrets that come out, some of which have been simmering for decades. At the heart of it all is the director, whose past life as a Catholic priest serves to offer more mystery than answers in the story. As Ambler works to follow the clues, he, too, becomes trapped in a web that he did not see and could find himself in a situation that none of his fictional counterparts could have seen coming. An interesting premise tackled by Lehane, though delivery has its own pitfalls, which might leave readers feeling tepid. 

This is my first experience with Lehane, so I am unable to judge this book against any of his other work. I am also not a professional writer or editor, so it is easy for me to toss out issues, having never fought the war to create a published work. However, as I have been asked for some honest sentiments about the piece, I would be remiss if I did not bring a few things to the reader’s attention (as well as the author and editorial staff). While it is enriching to have a number of characters in a mystery novel, Lehane fails to compartmentalise them, which has them popping up here and there, albeit briefly, and had me reaching for a scratch pad to keep them all straight. While this may seem like a weak criticism, tied to the second issue I will raise below, it does prove onerous on the reader who seeks to push through the novel and get to the heart of the matter. Secondly, and tied to the first, is the scattered use of all the characters in vignettes through each chapter. Rather that focussing attention on a small collection, building the drama and character development, Lehane plunges readers into these small dialogues or narratives best suited for stage plays, and confuses the reader rather than providing a much needed flow. I will admit, the ever-alternating scenes does have its place and when Lehane uses them towards the end of the story, it does provide dramatic effect to build to the murder revelations. I was not able to feel any connection to the characters, other than Ray Ambler and perhaps one other, whose mention here would prove to be a spoiler. On the positive side, Lehane is able to utilise a wonderful setting (both the library and New York City) to keep the story moving ahead. I would have liked more of a sleuth-centric novel, with Ray using his day job to offset his personal passion, rather than have him offer less than 100%. Call it a desire to see more of a Jessica Fletcher character (for those old enough to remember Murder, She Wrote) whereby the character is completely involved and offering the police crumbs as needed. While I had some issues in the early stages of the book, I was able to find enjoyment as the mystery unfolded and enjoyed how it all came together in the end, even with that little twist to keep the reader curious. Would I rush back if this became a series? I think I would give it a second try to see if I could find comfort in more of Lehane’s writing. As of now, I remain firmly rooted to the fence.

Kudos, Mr. Lehane for this interesting novel. While I can be a fickle reader, I do enjoy how you were able to present your story and think there is potential for more success.