The Great Mistake

Written by Jonathan Lee
Review by Larry Zuckerman

On Friday, November 13, 1903, a man accosts Andrew Haswell Green in front of his Park Avenue home and shoots him dead. All New York wants to know why an assassin would target an eighty-three-year-old attorney who’s devoted his life to bringing projects such as Central Park, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the New York Public Library into the world.

Why, indeed? By way of answer, the narrative leads the reader through Green’s past and character, particularly his poverty-ridden childhood with an abusive father, his thwarted sexual desires, and his determination to become a gentleman of note. The narrative evokes the irony that a man unable to make friends or open his heart enacts public works that rank among the city’s most significant social institutions and meeting places.

Lee writes gorgeous sentences and understands New York, rendering scenes of a beguiling city in flux, with all its oddities, puzzles, and injustices. Some are very funny, as with the carnival elephant that tries to charge into a police station, or the high-class brothel madam who’s smarter than the detective who questions her and ties him into verbal knots.

But these vignettes don’t amount to a plot, and the motive behind Green’s murder neither commands the pages to turn nor provides much surprise. Further, irony offers thin prospects for emotional engagement, and Green’s portrayal disappoints the same way. Distant and cut off, even from himself, he’s drab compared to the minor characters, and seems like the subject of a monograph. That a thwarted man accomplishes great works makes a potentially gripping premise, but I want to know why this thwarted man demands attention.

Lee’s prose is elegant, often dazzling, but that alone can’t carry the load; The Great Mistake remains a study rather than a story.