Con Lehane returns with his second mystery featuring crime fiction curator for the New York Public Library, Raymond Ambler. This time it is personal in many ways. A coworker has been killed and a Muslim scholar, who Ray’s possible love Adele may have feelings for, is the main suspect. Also, Raymond takes the files and letters from a former cop-turned-author that are about the decades old murder of a union boss that put a friend on death row. Everything is skillfully woven together with a very human feel and a lived-in look at New York.
MysteryPeople Scott: In Murder In the 42nd Street Library Raymond Ambler works with his co-workers as a team. With Murder In The Manuscript Room there is more friction between him and some of them. How did you end up taking that route?
Con Lehane: I never meant for the connections between Ambler and the other recurring characters, including Adele Morgan, Ambler’s fellow worker and attractive female friend, to lack tension. I didn’t know what was going to happen between Ambler and Adele after the first book. I don’t know what’s going to happen to them now after the second book. Both Adele and homicide detective Mike Cosgrove have larger roles in Murder in the Manuscript Room than they did in Murder at the 42nd Street Library. This is partly because I purposely chose a structure of alternating points of view—Ambler-Adele-Ambler-Cosgrove-Ambler-Adele and so on. Partly, things change between characters because the characters aren’t static. They’re dynamic and I don’t always know what’s going to happen with them until it happens. This might be a dumb way to write a mystery. But it’s how I write, certainly in the first draft. I have to have characters interacting with one another to move the story along. That doesn’t mean I don’t have a general idea of what the story is; more, it means I’m not sure what each character might do until they do it. If they go too far afield, I can get them back on track when I revise. So I don’t know that the friction served a higher purpose; it was what the story called for.
MPS: The book has two mysteries that play off one another. How did you deal with that challenge?
vCL: What I knew when I started the book was that Paul Higgins would be a former handler of snitches for the NYPD and a sort of amateur crime writer who wrote thrillers based on his experiences. I also knew there would be an Arab Muslim doing research in the library’s holdings of ancient Oriental manuscript collection and an undercover operative monitoring him and his research. The rest of the story—including a second mystery having to do with the murder of an African-American union leader in New York CIty’s garment trucking industry thirty years earlier—developed as I wrote the book. I can tell you where in my memory a couple of the strains of the story came from. First, I knew a guy—someone I liked a lot when I met him and still do like—who’d worked undercover in a number of capacities as an FBI agent and wrote a book about his experiences, hence Higgins. Next, years ago when I worked as a union organizer, I was offered a job working for an African-American guy, a truck driver, who created a rank-and-file union movement to try to take his union away from the gangsters who’d taken it over. (you can read something about the gangsters in the industry here if you’d like). To clarify, gangster-domination of trucking unions, including the Teamsters union, was an adjunct to gangster control of the industry the truck drivers were part of and the companies they dealt with. You hear a lot about gangster-dominated unions, not so much gangster-run companies. They went hand-in-hand. The third piece of this was an idea of undercover work and the use of informants that bothered me. An informant was usually an acquaintance, often a friend, who was caught at something and offered the choice of spying on you or going to jail himself (there are others who informed strictly for money). Undercover operatives—law enforcement who go undercover—were folks who joined your organization, or gang or whatever, and became your friend for the purpose of betraying you. This was often a dangerous thing for the operative to do and the folks you became friends with often were doing nasty things to other people. Nonetheless, the idea of making friends with someone in order to betray them always struck me as filled with moral ambiguity. The final piece was the growth of private security agencies, which have literally (and I use the term advisedly) become larger than the armies of most countries and what that means to the future. All of this is a kind of underpinning to the story that unfolded as I wrote it.
MPS: You touch on the plight of the working class in the book as in others. What makes that a theme worth returning to for you?
CL: This answer is related to my answer to the last question. If you were a conspiracy theorist, you’d see an unholy connection between the NYPD brass, a private security agency, and Wall Street. At the moment, their enemy is a fringe element of Islam. But the net they cast is wide enough to include anyone who gets in their way. There’s another piece to the murder of the garment truckers union leader. I hint that the reason he was killed had to do with efforts to stop a group that wanted to create a national transportation union—workers in air, rail, truck, anything that moves people or goods in one union. This would be a strong vehicle for workers demanding better wages, shorter hours, health insurance, pensions. It would have changed the power dynamics in politics dramatically. Various groups and persons were in favor of this—including the infamous Jimmy Hoffa. The power structure—Wall Street, the banks, and their elected-official supporters—were very much opposed. The subversive idea lurking in my subconscious was how far would the power structure and the law enforcement arm of the power structure go to stop it. Suffice it to say, any group that remotely threatens the current political-economic power structure is infiltrated and spied on. There’s a little twist at the end of the book that was inspired by the Whitey Bulger case in Boston where different law enforcement agencies had informers in different gangs working at cross purposes, so in the end the gangsters were handling the law enforcement agents, rather than vice-versa. Again, this is fiction. I’m not writing true crime.
MPS: What is the the biggest asset Raymond has as a sleuth?
CL: I like to think that he sees things that others don’t see, and can draw inferences from what he sees that others aren’t able to draw. I also like to believe what distinguishes Ambler is that which distinguished Georges Simenon and his Detective Chief Inspector Maigret: “My motto, to the extent that I have one, has been noted often enough, and I’ve always conformed to it. It’s the one I’ve given to old Maigret, who resembles me in some points … ‘understand and judge not.’
MPS: One of the things I enjoy about the series is that Raymond works with a group of friends. What does an ensemble cast of amateur sleuths allow you to do?
CL: I really like the idea of the ensemble. If the series continues—the Good Lord willing and the creeks don’t rise—I’m looking forward to each of the recurring characters—Adele, Mike Cosgrove, Ambler’s boss, the defrocked Jesuit, Harry Larkin, Ambler’s son, and certainly McNulty the bartender, perhaps others—having a chance to play larger or smaller roles in different books giving me a chance to develop them, add dimensions. I hadn’t thought of that when I began this series. The fact that each of them has come alive—at least for me—presents an opportunity for the series to go on and on.
MPS: Do you have any idea what is in store next for Raymond Ambler?
I know that in the next book McNulty, I’m sorry to say, is in big trouble. Big big trouble.