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For a library mystery, MURDER IN THE MANUSCRIPT ROOM is not very bookish--but perhaps that reflects the times in which we live. MURDER IN THE MANUSCRIPT ROOM has a little bit for nearly everyone: a love story, a son in the penitentiary, a New York City barkeep who holds all the secrets, a Civil-Rights-era cold case, Palestinians who are angry at the West, a custody battle, the New York Public Library, small unions and big business. Sometimes, reading Con Lehane's latest, I longed for more unity and depth, but we too live in multitasking times, alas, as well. Lehane, by the bye, seems to know of which he writes: a union organizer, a bartender, and once a denizen of The City, his descriptions of New York feel right. A parent, his "problems with teen boys and girls" scenes feel right, too. His name, perhaps, has given his pen the gift o' gab.
Dramatis personae: Raymond Ambler, librarian, divorced, with a son in the penitentiary for murder, whose Manuscript Room research assistant has gone and gotten herself murdered; Raymond's significant other and also a librarian, Adele Morgan, who babysits Raymond's grandson, Johnny; Richard Wright, newly elected leader of the Trucker's Union, but not for long; Trey Thomas, a confidential informant, supposedly Richard's murderer; Devon Thomas, an innocent man who took the rap for his brother Trey; Paul Higgins, formerly New York City Police Department Intelligence, handler of confidential informants, now a crime writer whose books are based on crimes such as the murder of Richard Wright; Mike Cosgrove, New York Homicide Investigator, friend to Raymond, father of a teen girl who is looking for trouble; Brad Campbell, formerly New York Police Department Director of Intelligence, now entrepreneur and founder of a security firm, and a real ... toad; Leila Stone, pseud., a library Research Assistant who takes such great interest in a Muslim man's readings of ancient Islamic manuscripts that she rifles through his notes; Brian McNulty, New York barkeep who knows everything about his clients but keeps mum unless prodded; Gobi Tabrizi, a "Syrian" doing research in the New York Public Library who likes American pizza and attracts trouble like a magnet; socialites, mullahs, shadowy figures in dark cars, brothers and sisters of the wrongly imprisoned, of the too-soon dead; police officers, the January snow.
Con Lehane's novel cannot be said to be about any one thing, except solving a murder, which is what murder mysteries do, but often it is not all they do. Besides a very complicated plot, driven by Raymond's and Adele's need to understand what happened to their co-worker, let me examine these strands: love is difficult at best in these times, but it is made even more so in blended families, in lovers on the rebound. How people keep love and goodness alive is certainly here in the present volume.
But if I were to cast my net further, probably I would say that MURDER IN THE MANUSCRIPT ROOM is about people who are ... judged by their covers, for ill or not, we are left to ponder. Richard Wright, union organizer, man of color, was adjudged a danger, so he was killed. A Middle Eastern Muslim is adjudged a terrorist, and so he is captured, interrogated, and imprisoned. Ambler's son and a drinking companion got into a row and now the young man is behind federal bars, adjudged a murderer. Richard Wright's killer is assumed to be Trey (a police informant); it is Trey's brother who is in prison for the murder. The novel unravels these people's given roles versus their actual roles. The justice of the law stumbles forward, not always correctly but forward-by-God. Actual justice seems to be something created, not by lawyers or the police, but by individuals and perhaps by readers who witness the carriage and miscarriage of it.
And, I suppose, Con Lehane's novel is about New York, and its relation to New York may be one of its real reasons for existing: despite the January cold and the dirty snow, despite a justice system which grinds most exceedingly fine, despite lives that seem just shy of being rat-races; despite these things, decency is extended and finds its way to the fore.
§ Cathy Downs is professor of English at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, where she teaches American literature and is a fan of the well-turned whodunit.
Reviewed by Cathy Downs, December 2017
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