cover image The Great Mistake

The Great Mistake

Jonathan Lee. Knopf, $25.95 (304p) ISBN 978-0-525-65849-8

Lee (High Dive) dissects the life and murder of Andrew Haswell Green, one of New York City’s preeminent city fathers and adversary of the corrupt Boss Tweed, in this ambitious outing. In November 1903, at the age of 83, Green—a onetime comptroller and architect of Central Park, the Museum of Natural History, and the Brooklyn Bridge—steps outside his Park Avenue home and is shot dead by a man in a bowler hat in broad daylight. To uncover the motive, Lee moves backward and forward in time. The detective assigned to the case probes the entanglements of wicked and wealthy bawd Bessie Davis and unstable gunman Cornelius Williams, who seems to have acted on private struggles. In chapters devoted to Green’s past, the reader learns of his father’s failing Massachusetts farm, his apprenticeship in Trinidad, and close friendship with New York governor and future presidential candidate Samuel Tilden, whose rise prefigures Green’s own pursuit to become “an elegant man.” Lee’s two-tiered structure falters slightly under the weight of Green’s copious resume, but he sustains a captivating strangeness in his depiction of the period, such as the practice of hunting stray dogs on city streets for a bounty. By and by, a dynamic all-American character emerges, making for an audacious historical. (June)