We are happy to have Con Lehane as one of our readers at Noir At The Bar on May 12th. Con, who wrote three books with New York bartender Brian McNulty is now giving us a new amateur sleuth – crime fiction curator for the New York Public Library Ray Ambler. Ambler’s first mystery, Murder At The 42nd Street Library, has the hero dealing with a murder in the library dealing with an author’s notes and dark secrets. Con was kind enough to talk to us about the book, influence, and his city.
1.What drew you to a librarian for your main character?
When my publisher cancelled my McNulty the Bartender series, my editor, Marcia Markland at Thomas Dunne Books, suggested I think about setting a story at the 42nd Street Library. She thought another book set in New York City with a different cast of characters and setting might work better than the New York City bars worked. I don’t remember if she suggested using a librarian as the detective, but it’s logical. The fact is Raymond Ambler is a curator, or archivist, not a research librarian. I did this because librarians know too much for an interloper like me to fake it. Curators are subject area specialists. I figured I could fake one of those, if I used the right knowledge area. I invented “crime fiction” as an area of expertise. It’s an area I know something about, though I’m far from an expert.
2. What did you want the reader to know about the folks who work in that profession?
I’m a great admirer of libraries and how they function and what they do in the community. Librarians are the curators of our collective knowledge and, as important, our culture. Libraries are a unique institution in the greed-driven society we’re living in. Could you imagine in today’s United States someone proposing setting up institutions in every city, town, and village of the nation that would provide access to books, records, movies, computers, and advice on how to use and get the most from all of those things—and all of it for free? Yet the United States more-or-less invented the concept of free libraries, and one of our most famous robber barons, Andrew Carnegie, provided the funding to build a couple of thousand of them. The librarians are the drivers of the train. Librarians, probably more than any other profession, with the possible exception of writers and other artists, are the fiercest protectors of free speech in our society. So for my character Raymond Ambler, I like that he has this pedigree as a seeker of truth and a fighter for freedom of speech.
3. I was happy to see your other series character, bartender Brian McNulty, as a supporting player. How did you end up putting him in?
I actually wrote the first Ambler book (unpublished) with Ambler as an historian. The crime-fiction curator idea didn’t come until I began the second book. When I was writing the first book, I realized that by the third chapter I’d already come up with three scenes that took place in bars—you can take the man out of the barroom but you can’t take the barroom out of the man— so I figured I might as well go with it. I created an after-work watering hole, so to speak, for the librarians. The bartender took their order, said something—in that unpublished book, it was about going to the track—and lo-and-behold, there was McNulty, worming his way into the book. He’s an actor, remember? So I told him: Remember what Stanislavsky said, ‘There are no small parts, only small actors.’
4. What do you like about the amateur sleuth?
I guess I didn’t think I had background enough to write a private eye or a cop as the detective, though Mike Cosgrove, the NYPD homicide detective in Murder at the 42nd Street Library, took on a bigger role in the story than I’d expected, maybe even a bigger role in the second book, so I do have a sort of police procedural guy. I’m interested to see where that might lead.
5. Ross Macdonald is referenced throughout the novel. what do you admire about him?
I’d forgotten I referenced him in the book. I was in Aunt Agatha’s Mystery Bookstore last night (is it okay to mention a competitor?) and Robin Agnew asked about Ross Macdonald’s influence on me. I came to mystery writing in a roundabout way. One summer I read all of Sherlock Holmes; after that, I read The Maltese Falcon. I was really taken with the Hammett book and read all of the rest of his work. What might be unusual is I was most interested in the politics behind his stories. Anyway, I went from Hammett to Chandler to Ross Macdonald, as many writers did, although as many or more veered off toward John MacDonald. What impressed me and I think influenced me was the structure of Ross Macdonald’s plots, where something that lies buried in the past is working itself out to a conclusion in the present action of the story. The connections between people and how those connections get untangled, the hidden motives, things not being what they seem, and people not being whom they seem, all of that appealed to me. And I like that there’s a kind of running commentary on the world in which the story takes place that doesn’t get in the way of the story.
6. One of the things I dig about your books is that you have a very lived-in view of New York. What makes living in that city great for a writer?
My fascination with New York City began when I was a child. I grew up outside the city in the Connecticut suburbs. My father was a gardener on private estates, owned by rich people who worked in the city (shades of “The Big Sleep”). My folks were from Ireland and had relatives and friends (“people from home”) in the city, so we’d go to visit in the city, in Manhattan—working people lived in Manhattan in those days—and in Brooklyn. And folks from the city would come to visit my father and mother. A number of the men who came to visit, usually for a couple of days in the summer, were bartenders in the city. Good-natured, jovial, funny guys. So maybe the obsession started then. The first story I ever published, not crime fiction, was set at IS 89, what they used to call middle schools in New York. The hero of my first novel (not crime fiction, not published) was from the Bronx. The McNulty series is based on my own experience tending bar in New York. I wrote another novel (this one is crime fiction and unpublished) set in New Hampshire. My editor (the one who came up with the 42nd Street Library) was exasperated. “What are you doing writing about the woods? Steve Hamilton writes about the woods. You write about New York.” So there you go. No explanation.