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The Guardian Weekly - 2021-06-11

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MURDER IN THE CITY

Culture

By Alex Preston ALEX PRESTON IS A WRITER AND CRITIC

Jonathan Lee’s The Great Mistake is a novel so steeped in American literary history that it comes as a surprise to find that its author is a fortysomething from Surrey. The novel examines the life of Andrew Haswell Green, through the lens of his death. Green might have greater claim than any to be the father of modern New York. He made his name as the architect of the union of Manhattan with Brooklyn and Queens – a move called by its detractors the “Great Mistake of 1898”. Green was as guarded in his private life as he was expansive in his public works: he was devoted to his “intimate friend”, Samuel Tilden, who ran for president in 1876. Green founded the Public Library of New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and, most famously, Central Park. Lee opens his novel with Green’s death, shot aged 83 on the steps of his Park Avenue home by a man named Cornelius Williams. The narrative then laces between the bloody present moment and Green’s past, seeking to discover the reason behind this apparently motiveless murder. Lee has great fun with the conventions of the mystery novel, with the police procedural elements of his tale and with the strangeness of New York at that time – great herds of pigs roamed the city. Against this rollicking narrative more serious and contemporary themes emerge. Green’s assailant is black – might his murder have something to do with his slaving past? There’s also the question of Green’s sexuality; it was often said of Tilden that he would have been elected president had he married. Lee handles the relationship between the two men with exquisite delicacy. The Great Mistake is a book of extraordinary intelligence and style, written in language at once beautiful and playfully aphoristic. Its protagonist – decent, dignified, wounded – will live long in the mind of those that read it.

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