The entrance to New York City’s 42nd Street research library, also known as the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building.
During my first journey to New York City, not too long after I’d graduated from college, all I wanted to do was visit buildings. My father was an architect, who—though we lived way out in the hinterlands of Portland, Oregon—had for years been showing me magazine articles and books about Manhattan’s thrusting skyline, and how modern designers went about inserting slender glass-and-steel edifices amongst its older, broad-shouldered stone structures. So I was well prepared for a self-guided tour of the burg. I don’t remember in what order I saw them, but my wide-eyed walk through Manhattan (with too-infrequent stops at sidewalk eateries and bookshops) carried me to the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, Grand Central Terminal, the Woolworth Building, Daniel Burnham’s Flatiron Building, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum, and, on the edge of Central Park, the luxurious Plaza Hotel.
Somewhere early in that hike, I also made sure to stop by the New York Public Library main branch at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street.
A magnificent Beaux-Arts structure, built on the site of the old Croton Reservoir, designed by the local firm of John Merven Carrère and Thomas Hastings, and opened in 1911, that institution has become a beloved landmark, as well as a familiar location for movie shooting. (I think the first time I became aware of its cinematic potential was in Beneath the Planet of the Apes, during which an astronaut, played by James Franciscus, stumbles—at some time “in the distant future”—upon the ruined, buried, and sadly forgotten research library.) I recall standing in front of that marble mammoth on a warm summer day and just watching people as they
climbed its broad entry staircase, on adjacent sides of which recline giant stone lions, nicknamed “Patience” and “Fortitude” by New York’s Depression-era mayor, Fiorello La Guardia. Having absorbed all I could from that vantage
point, and with a smile threatening to plant itself permanently on my face, I finally mounted the stairs myself, touched each lion for good luck, and then roamed the building’s impressive interior for at least an hour. Ever since then, whenever my travels take me to Manhattan, I make sure to pay a call on that beautiful place of learning.
So it was probably inevitable that I should enjoy Con Lehane’s brand-new mystery novel, Murder at the 42nd Street Library (Minotaur), much of which takes place in and around that very landmark. But I’ve also read and enjoyed his previous three mysteries, all starring bartender-turned-amateur sleuth Brian McNulty: Beware the Solitary Drinker (2002), What Goes Around Comes Around (2005), and Death at the Old Hotel (2007). I knew, going in, that Lehane loves complicated plots, quirky characters with troubled back-stories, spirited dialogue, and a good deal of incidental humor in his storytelling. Murder at the 42nd Street Library offers all of those, plus a bookstacks-to-bowels view of what it’s like to work in a modern bibliotheca.
(Left) Author Con Lehane
After finishing Murder at the 42nd Street Library, I was hoping to interview him about this debut work in his new series and how it shows his evolution as a fiction writer. Fortunately, he accepted my invitation. The first—and shorter—part of our exchange was posted earlier today on the Kirkus Reviews Web site. Part II is embedded below.
For those of you who aren’t already familiar with Con (formerly Cornelius) Lehane, let me just note that he was reared in Connecticut and has been, at various points in his life, a bartender, union organizer, labor journalist, college professor. He attended Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and later earned an Master of Fine Arts degree in fiction writing from New York’s Columbia University. Currently a resident of Kensington, Maryland, near Washington, D.C., he shares his hard-won knowledge of fiction writing and mystery writing with students at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland.
In addition to the topics he covered in Part I of my interview with him, I asked Lehane about his life-changing experiences with the labor and civil-rights movements, his move into journalism, his years as the adviser to a student newspaper, his debt to novelists Nelson Algren and Ross Macdonald, the ups and downs of his mystery-writing career, and how he hopes to develop his new series, built around librarian Raymond Ambler. Read on to learn about those subjects and more.
J. Kingston Pierce: “Cornelius” isn’t the most common of first names. Is there a story behind that?
Did your parents name you after the 19th-century
Irish Socialist leader?
Con Lehane: I’m named after my paternal grandfather. My sister is named after our maternal grandmother. My middle name, William, is my maternal grandfather’s first name. My sister’s middle name is our paternal grandmother’s name. This is an Irish way of naming children. I don’t know what happens after the first two kids. Our family didn’t get that far. Actually, my son Paddy is named after my father. My son Jimmy is named after his mother’s
father. Finally, Cornelius is not such an uncommon Irish name. In the west of Cork and the East of Kerry, the name Cornelius Lehane is not uncommon.
JKP: After you published your first novel, Beware the Solitary Drinker, much was made of your having a bartending background. But how extensive is that background, really? For how many years did you work among the tippling crowd, and where?
CL: I could probably name all the bars I worked in, but it would take some effort. There were 24 of them. It might really be 23 bars, because I was fired in a strike at Hartford Jai-Lai many years ago before I ever got to step behind the bar. My first bartending job was when I was still in college in Milwaukee and I was 21. My last bartending job was during the summer after my oldest son was born. That was almost 30 years ago.
JKP: You grew up around Fairfield
County, Connecticut, and your father was a gardener on private estates, if I understand your history correctly. Your father often took you out to help him in the gardens, and you developed an affinity with other workers. Can we trace your interest in labor issues to those childhood experiences?
CL: Yes, though not directly. Certainly, my identification with folks who make their living by the sweat of their brow was because those are the folks I grew up among. My identification with the labor movement as the voice of those folks (even those who don’t believe that unions are the best representatives of working people, of whom my father was one) came later, more or less through my involvement in the civil-rights movement and later the anti-Vietnam War movement.
JKP: What was the extent of your involvement in labor organizing? What was it about such work you found so appealing? And for how many years did you work in labor-organizing positions?
CL: My first union activity was picketing supermarkets in support of the United Farm Workers’ efforts to organize migrant farm workers. It was the UFW’s first national effort, the [1965-1970] Delano Grape Boycott, a kind of amalgam of civil rights and labor issues, and a great lesson in unifying workers. The strike began when Filipino-American grape workers walked
off the job. It wasn’t a strike of Mexican and other Latin American workers until the National Farm Workers Association, led by Cesar Chavez—a mostly Latino union—joined the strike later. The boycott went on for five years. I wasn’t much involved except picketing grocery stores with Boycott Grapes signs.
My first job in the labor movement was with what was then called the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union. At the time, the Amalgamated represented clothing workers who made men’s clothes and the International Ladies Garment Workers represented workers who made women’s clothes. Since then, because of dwindling membership, those two unions merged, that merger followed by other mergers and splits, so the old Amalgamated later became part of the second union I worked for, what was then called the Hotel and Restaurant Workers and Bartenders International Union. The Hotel and Restaurant Workers Union was sort of my home union, because I was a bartender and a member, as well as a staff person. After I was let go (fired) from the staff, I kept on organizing as a member of a bartenders local in Massachusetts. More union jobs followed, including organizing doctors and, later, circus workers. Later still, after I thought I’d finished with organizing and begun
teaching, I was elected president of my community college union local.
Unless you’ve been involved in a union organizing campaign, you wouldn’t know the courage and nobility of the folks who put their economic well-being—their jobs—on the line to stand up against forces with a lot more power than they have. There was a documentary film of one of the farm workers strikes some time back. I don’t remember the title. In one scene, the camera panned a picket line of workers standing alongside a road, maybe blocking trucks carrying struck goods, maybe buses carrying strikebreakers. I don’t remember. What I do remember is the expression on the face of one of the men standing wearing a picket sign. It was an expression of abject terror, the expression on the face of someone who thinks he might die in the next few minutes. The man was terrified, but he was there, standing up, as scared as he was. That’s why I did it. That’s what I got out of it: standing up against exploitation with folks like him. I could go on for a couple of days about my time in the labor movement; it’s been decades now, and I’ve never thought I was wrong about it.
JKP: Were you employed as a labor journalist at the same time as you were organizing, or did that period of your career come before or after?
CL: I worked as a labor journalist for the National Education Association. This was my last job in the labor movement, from which I retired. My background was as a college teacher, so I wrote and edited NEA’s higher-education publications. But I also did work on organizing campaigns on college campuses while at NEA.
JKP: So where does being a college professor fit into your résumé? Was that a later-career move? Were you teaching English, journalism, or something else? And where were you teaching?
CL: I hold a Master of Fine Arts degree in fiction writing, my credential for college teaching. This was something of a planned move, and strangely, it’s all connected. I was always back and forth between my union work and bartending, making my living as a bartender so I could get time to write when I wasn’t working for unions. It was much harder to find time to write when doing union work. When I “got done” with my job with the Amalgamated, I went to work at the University of Massachusetts [UMass] in Amherst as a janitor, so I could take courses in the MFA program with Harvey Swados, who’d recently joined the faculty. He was probably the last of the “proletarian” writers. One of his books, On the Line , was based on his time working in an auto plant. He was really encouraging to me, despite the fact I was very much an amateurish writer. He died [in 1972] just after I was accepted into the MFA program. I was sort of lost without him and floundered around a bit, finally dropping out of the program, bartending and then going to work for the bartender’s union.
I finally got an MFA a few years later, not from UMass but from Columbia, having moved from Massachusetts to New York to work for a union. My plan was to trade in my union work and bartending, which I’d done one or the other of for more than a decade, for teaching at a college, which would provide me more time to write. My first teaching jobs were as an adjunct composition teacher in the CUNY [City University of New York] system. Not so coincidentally, one of my positions there was in the City College Workers Education Center. After a couple of years of that, I was hired by Rockland Community College as a full-time tenure-track assistant professor, to teach English and act as adviser to the college newspaper. God knows why they hired me. But it was great. I worked there for almost 10 years, leaving as an associate professor to move to Washington, D.C., to work in labor education with SEIU [the Service Employees International Union] and later to become an editor at NEA.
JKP: Being someone who first saw the possibilities of his own writing career while working for a college paper, I’m interested in your mention of having been the adviser to the staff of such a publication. What were your best and worst experiences in the adviser’s role?
CL: I was the adviser to Outlook, the student newspaper at Rockland Community College in Suffern, New York … The student editorial crew I inherited when I arrived at Rockland were conservative, Young Americans for Freedom types. They didn’t trust me at first because I was always up front about my own political views. I got along with them—and all of the subsequent editors—because I told them right from the start that the paper was theirs. They made the decisions. I was the adviser. I couldn’t and wouldn’t make decisions for them. They didn’t believe me. But I convinced them, the college administration, and the faculty that the final decision on anything editorial would always belong to the student editors.
As you might imagine, this ruffled a lot of feathers. I persuaded the administration to adopt this hands-off policy by pointing out that if I made decisions, the college would be liable for what the students wrote. If it was clear that the decisions were always made by the students, the college wouldn’t be liable. I would argue with the students. They knew what I thought about whatever issue they were dealing with. They also knew they didn’t have to agree with me. I wouldn’t have the final word. They got things wrong. They embarrassed faculty members and the administration more than once. They took editorial positions that made me cringe. In all of that, they grew a lot.
One year, I had this group of guys, disciples of Howard Stern. Every day, I went into the newspaper office; Howard Stern was blaring out of the radio. I couldn’t stand him—still can’t. For the entire year, no women entered the newspaper office, or if a young woman might happen in, she’d leave quickly and never come back. The editors moaned and groaned that there were no women. This was before there was as much consciousness about hostile work environments. I knew. I told them to turn off Howard Stern, stop with all the women-as-objects jokes. They weren’t bad guys. They were boorish and afraid of women, so they scared them off in turn.
After that, for a number of years, women were editors and the place was more welcoming. Yet, it never became welcoming to black students. The editors would have welcomed black students. [But] hey didn’t know how to create a setting, a newsroom, where black kids felt welcome and comfortable. I didn’t either. I had one black kid as an editor, Michael Grant. He was from Jamaica and went back to Jamaica where he’s a writer now.
JKP: At what point in your life did you determine that composing novels was the perfect job for you?
CL: My becoming a novel writer, a story writer, derives from my reading, by luck and happenstance, The Man with the Golden Arm , by Nelson Algren, near the end of my time in college. When I read the first few pages of that book, I knew for the first time that I could become a writer, a novelist. I won’t describe the story (it’s not the movie) or my epiphany (I’d never read a novel that was so much about things I knew: the setting, the characters, and the sensibility, which was sympathy for the kind of folks a lot of people don’t feel much sympathy for), because it would take too long. Basically, I had this epiphany that I could become a writer—that I should become a writer—at the same time in my life that I discovered this political battle against injustice that manifested itself in the civil-rights movement, the anti-war movement, a bunch of anti-poverty community organizing that was going on at the time, and the labor movement. So, for me, the two—what then we called “the movement” and my writing—were intertwined, inseparable.
JKP: Did you try writing and selling other novels before you found a publisher for Beware the Solitary Drinker?
CL: When I was at the UMass MFA program, I began a novel that took place against the backdrop of the radical political movement of the ’60s and early ’70s that I’d been part of. I worked on that off and on for a number of years. It took a long time to write and a longer time to go through many revisions. It was my thesis for my MFA at Columbia, and I tried to get it published for a few years after that, publishing stories here and there in the meanwhile. In one attempt to get it published, I attended a conference on the first novel in Woodstock, New York,
not far from where I lived at the time. One of the speakers, Ruth Cavin (with whom, years later, I closed down a couple of Bouchercon bars)
said, among other things, that it was easier to get a first mystery novel published than a more traditional sort of novel. I’d begun reading mystery novels a few years before that and had the same sort of epiphany reading Hammett and Raymond Chandler and, later, Ross Macdonald that I had upon reading Nelson Algren, a kind of affinity for the settings, the characters, the voice, and especially with Macdonald, the sensibility (incidentally, Ross Macdonald was an admirer of Nelson Algren). In one of Macdonald’s books, Lew Archer says something like, “As the wise man from Chicago once said, ‘Never play cards with a man named Doc, never eat at a place called Mom’s, and never, ever sleep with anyone who has more troubles than you do’”—a famous quote from Algren. That’s when I began Beware the
Solitary Drinker, thinking it would be easier to get a mystery published.
JKP: When you created New York City bartender Brian McNulty, did you imagine that he’d be able to carry a series of novels, rather than just one? Or had you planned Solitary Drinker as a one-off, with completely different novels to follow?
CL: At first, coming out of the conference I mentioned above, thinking about what Ruth Cavin said about it being easier to get a first mystery published, I thought I’d write one mystery novel to get myself published as a novelist and then go on to being whatever kind of novelist I thought I was. Once I got into writing Beware the Solitary Drinker, though, I found I was entirely comfortable with the form. I think I sort of needed the conventions of the mystery novel to provide a structure for my writing. That first novel I mentioned was over 800 pages long in the first draft. After a couple of rewrites, I got it down to 400-something. As you can guess, it was
bit unwieldy. The mystery novel provided a structure and provided the basics of a ready-made plot: someone killed someone and your protagonist needs to find out who did it and why. Well, by the time I finished [Beware the Solitary Drinker], what Ruth Cavin said was no longer true. In fact, she (or one of her assistants) rejected the book. It took years to find a publisher for that one. I finally found a publisher in France, Francois Guerif at Rivages/Noir, so I sold my first book [translated as Prends garde au buveur solitaire] in France before I found a publisher here in the U.S.
JKP: After writing and publishing three McNulty yarns, the last one being Death at the Old Hotel, you pretty much disappeared from bookstore shelves, though you maintained a presence at conventions such as Bouchercon. Nine years went by before you introduced your fourth novel, Murder at the 42nd Street Library. What was behind that hiatus? Was it your choice, or your publisher’s?
CL: First of all, I was writing the entire time. It was a hiatus from being published, and it was
definitely not by choice. My publisher, Thomas Dunne Books/St Martin’s Minotaur, didn’t want to continue the McNulty series because the sales weren’t good enough. This was around the time of one of those turning point in publishing when the publishers gave up on the idea of slowly building an author through three or four books until sales became respectable. Really good writers—Reed Farrel Coleman, Scott Phillips, Eddie Muller, Jim Fusilli, many others—were dropped by publishers after really good books didn’t sell well enough. Death at the Old Hotel came out in June 2007. I don’t remember when I found out they weren’t going to do another book in the series. By the time I found out, I was a good way into a fourth McNulty book. My editor, Marcia Markland at Thomas Dunne, hadn’t given up on me, even though she couldn’t sell the house on another McNulty. She said I should write a different book: “Something no one ever
thought of before that could star Matt Damon.” I fiddled around with a number of ideas I might pitch to her and talked things over with my agent, Alice Martell. Alice told me she doubted she could sell the McNulty series to another New York publisher because of the sales numbers. So if I wanted to finish the book I was working on, we’d have to try a small press and hope something worked out there. Otherwise, I should write a different book—and she wasn’t especially hopeful about selling that either. Her advice was that if I wanted to sell a book, I should become famous. Agent and editor were both being facetious (Marcia is still my editor and Alice Martell is still my agent). But they provided a pretty good description of what publishers were looking for.
I ran into Marcia at either Malice Domestic or Bouchercon in 2008. She had an idea: I should write a mystery set at the 42nd Street Library. So I did. No contract, no promise of publication, just an idea. I was still working at NEA then; writing time was limited, so it took a while. At any rate, I wrote the book and sent it to her in early 2011. Basically, it was an unsolicited manuscript. Marcia isn’t the world’s speediest editor at getting things read. So, for this reason and that, she held onto the book for a while. At some point, she asked me to send her a proposal for a second book in the series. I did. What happened was she rejected the book I sent her and gave me a contract for the proposed book, as yet unwritten, which became Murder at the 42nd Street Library. I began [work on that] in the fall of 2011, spent the winter of 2012 in the Frederick Lewis Allen Memorial Room at the 42nd Street Library writing it, and turned it in, if I remember correctly, in 2014. It took this long to get it to publication. In the meanwhile, I’ve written a second Raymond Ambler book, also under contract.
JKP: About your librarian … Is it true, that his name was meant to honor both Raymond Chandler and Eric Ambler?
CL: I don’t think I ever said that to anyone. But a couple of people, including reviewers, made the connection. I came up with the name for the first book, before he was curator of the crime-fiction collection, so the name might have begot the collection and his new identity. So the answer is yes. I almost changed it a couple of times, but it stuck.
JKP: I always find it interesting to read your novels, because you’re an absolute demon for complicated plot twists and hidden motives. Which authors have been most influential in leading you to construct your mysteries as you do?
CL: My editor said when I was beginning the second Ambler book, “Try to make it simple. You have enough going on in that last book for two or three mysteries.” I don’t try to obfuscate. I don’t try to make it difficult for the reader. But I don’t like to explain. I try to write so I don’t have to explain, and this might require the reader to do some work. I don’t watch TV shows very often. When I do watch them sometimes, a lot of times, what’s going to happen next in a show is obvious to me—the body lying in the tub isn’t really dead, despite the axe sticking out of his head; he’s going to bounce back up in a minute, and so he does. That’s not the same thing as the suspense Hitchcock talks about where the viewer knows there’s a bomb under the table and the card players don’t. The first is just something predictable happening. I’ve been accused of being predictable myself. But I don’t like it. I try not to be predictable.
I mentioned Hammett and Chandler. I’m very much influenced by them. That’s why I began writing mysteries. But I don’t think I write like them, except maybe a little bit in tone with McNulty, the mean streets sort of thing. Ross Macdonald is who I think I’m most like—not that I’d put myself in the same league. Megan Abbott, who read Murder at the 42nd Street Library early on, made that connection of secrets in the past working themselves out in the present.
I think there were two strains of crime writing coming out of Hammett and Chandler. Ross Macdonald (Kenneth Millar) went one way; John D MacDonald went another way. A lot of writers who came after were much influenced by John D. (a writer I appreciate much more now than I did when I was beginning to write mysteries), some writing today who might not realize his influence on them. For a lot of reasons, I connected with Ross Macdonald and not John D. The next major influence, after those two was Robert B. Parker—a huge influence on many of today’s crime-fiction writers. I didn’t connect with him either, though I think, because he opened up so many new kinds of possibilities for crime fiction, he influenced me without my reading him much.
I also connected with a number of European writers. The aforementioned Eric Ambler, Georges Simenon, Nicholas Freeling, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, and others. But Ross Macdonald was my new Nelson Algren. He’s the writer I read over and over again. I spent a couple of days a couple of different times reading his notebooks in the library at the University of California-Irvine, where his papers are collected. I went there the first time after reading Tom Nolan’s wonderful biography. At the moment, I’m reading Meanwhile There Are Letters: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty
and Ross Macdonald.
JKP: Can I assume that an important secondary character in your new book, distinguished crime-fictionist Nelson Yates, takes at least part of his name from Nelson Algren?
CL: [And] Richard Yates was one of my fiction-writing teachers at Columbia and a major influence on me also. Why do people keep thinking I combine writers’ names for character names in my book? Actually, for a while, the character’s last name was Macdonald.
JKP: You mention as background that Ambler has “practiced tai chi for 20 years.” Why make that an element of your protagonist’s character?
CL: I had a boss years ago, a young man from Taiwan, whose adoptive parents opened a restaurant for him to run in Middletown, Connecticut. I was the bar manager. He’d been trained from childhood in tai chi. Tai chi, which most Americans think of as a set of exercises, is a martial art. One night, a drunken cook who knew some karate tried to take him on in the parking lot of the restaurant. It supposedly started as a joke—but those kinds of things with drunks are never jokes. The cook threw punches, kicked, charged like a bull. Andrew, my boss, sunk and turned and listened. He threw no punches, no kicks, but the drunk cook couldn’t touch him. Basically, the cook beat himself up. It was a bit like the fight in Murder at the 42nd Street Library.
I do tai chi exercises. I know the form. But I’m not proficient at it as a martial art, nor do I know the underlying philosophy, Taoism, that well. I keep at it, take a course now and again. But I’m not dedicated enough to become proficient. It’s sort of the peaceful martial art—softness, yielding, to overcome strength, or more properly to allow strength to overcome itself. Don’t quote me. The unpublished book had a lot more tai chi in it because I was taking a class at the time I was writing it.
JKP: I was surprised to read, on the back of the advance reader’s copy of Murder at the 42nd Street Library, that this was the first installment in a series that “features crime à la library at some of America’s most famous institutions of higher learning.” Does that mean you’re planning to take Ambler on the road, have him investigate murders and other nefarious acts at libraries around the United States? Or do you plan to stick with New York City libraries?
CL: I was surprised to read that myself. The second book is set at the 42nd Street Library. That library is a fascinating enough place to handle any number of murder mysteries, which is what I was inclined to do. I’m not averse to setting crimes at other libraries. There are a lot of great libraries, with interesting collections, histories, and architecture. I haven’t started a third book yet. I don’t know if the publisher will continue the Ambler series. I have a lot of ideas for the series, so I’d like to keep going. I’ll begin a new book soon without knowing if the series will continue, so at the moment, I don’t know what the book will be.
JKP: Do you have writing ambitions beyond what you’ve already achieved? Would you like to pen works other than crime fiction?
CL: So far I’ve been able to tell all the stories I want to tell, address all the reasons I write fiction in the mystery novels I’ve written. If I came up with a story I needed to tell and couldn’t tell it within the conventions of the mystery novel, I might write another kind of book. I think that book would be a tragedy—some might call it noir—along the lines of Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie or An American Tragedy or Nelson Algren’s The Man with the Golden Arm. Ross Macdonald tried to write what he called “an autobiographical novel about my depressing childhood in Canada.” He couldn’t do it. Instead, he found Lew Archer to be kind of a filter than
enabled him to write about the things that were closest and most important to him. The detective novel has served that purpose for me also.
JKP: Finally, are there things about the writing of fiction or your own abilities as an author in this field that you’ve learned over the years, but wish you had known from the outset?
CL: I’ve been writing fiction a long time and I’ve been teaching fiction writing and mystery writing for a few years now. I read any number of books on fiction writing—dozens, if not scores—both when I was learning to write and later as I was learning to teach fiction writing. I’ve come to believe that you learn best about writing fiction—mysteries—by reading the books of fiction themselves, more than from reading books about how to write fiction. I’m not saying don’t study the craft. Some of the books on craft are helpful but only in the context of
reading the works of fiction themselves. Starting over, I would have paid more attention to how the writers I identified with did what they did by reading and re-reading and thinking about the books I felt a kinship with.
READ MORE: “Con Lehane & Lola” (Coffee with a Canine).