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'The Great Mistake': Powerful story of a real-life power broker

"The Great Mistake," which deals with an assassination,

"The Great Mistake," which deals with an assassination, is based on a true incident. Credit: TNS/Knopf

THE GREAT MISTAKE by Jonathan Lee (Alfred A. Knopf, 304 pp., $25.95)

With "The Great Mistake," a meticulous portrait of a real-life New York power broker, Jonathan Lee once again proves that he's among the best writers working today.

"The Great Mistake" set in 1903, isn't a paragraph old when protagonist Andrew Haswell Green, an 83-year-old lawyer who developed famed parks and museums, has been shot to death in Manhattan. The mistaken-identity murder of the "Father of Greater New York," as one newspaper calls him, is the talk of the city.It's the stuff of a riveting whodunit, but Lee has crafted something a bit more measured. "So much of a life happens offstage, in silence," he writes. Accordingly, this is a rich, unhurried depiction of a man whose success appears to have masked sorrow and alienation.

Historical novels require informed speculation, a skill Lee honed in "High Dive," his brilliant novel about an assassination attempt on British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. In "The Great Mistake," he places Green on a Manhattan balcony, recalling his bucolic boyhood: "There were overhanging fruit trees below. A low Dutch church on the horizon. The delicious smell of apricots in the air." Later, Green organizes the development of Central Park.

Green never married. Some believed he was gay. This speculation informs two moving story lines. One deals with Green's strained familial relationships. The other focuses on his rapport with Tilden, the loser of the 1876 presidential election, whose sexuality was also a source of gossip. Green is mocked because he loves art, has refined penmanship, never pursues women. Today we'd call this homophobia.Meanwhile, Lee's description of the discrimination endured by Green's murderer, a Black man who apparently suffered from mental illness, underlines America's enduring hypocrisies and bigotries.

Lee poses an intriguing question about Green's life: "Might our private loneliness, our most crushing inner fears, push us outward, at times, into greater public good?" Yes, according to this beautifully written book.

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