Nov 21 2017 2:00pm

Setting a Mystery Series at New York City’s 42nd Street Library

Read Con Lehane's guest post about setting his mystery series in the iconic 42nd Street Library, then make sure you're signed in and comment below for a chance to win a copy of Murder in the Manuscript Room!

Murder in the Manuscript Room—the second book in my 42nd Street Library series—is out today, and I’ve been asked how it came about that I set a mystery series at New York City’s public library’s main branch, the iconic Stephen A. Schwarzman Building at the corner of 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue.

The simple answer is in the mid-2000s, I’d published three mysteries—variously described as hardboiled or noir—featuring the New York City bartender and man-about-the-mean-streets, Brian McNulty. But despite some kind reviews, the sales of the books chronicling McNulty’s adventures were not what my publisher had hoped for. 

When the publisher canceled the series, my editor, Marcia Markland at St. Martin’s Press, suggested I think about setting a story at the 42nd Street Library. She thought a book set in New York City with a different cast of characters and setting might work better than a book set in the city’s barrooms. I don’t remember if she suggested using a librarian as the detective. The outline she provided was sparse: “Write a book set at the 42nd Street Library.”

I’m a great admirer of libraries. They are a unique institution in the greed-driven society we live in. Can you imagine in today’s United States someone proposing setting up institutions in every city, town, and village of the nation that would provide access to books, records, movies, computers, the internet, as well as advice on how to use and get the most from all of those things—and all of it for free? Yet, the United States more-or-less invented the concept of free libraries. And folks pretty much across the political spectrum still appreciate them.

Librarians, the folks who run the libraries, are the curators of our collective knowledge and, as important, our culture. They are also—probably more than any other profession, with the possible exception of writers and other artists—the fiercest protectors of free speech in our society. I liked that my new series would have a protagonist with this pedigree of a seeker of truth and a fighter for freedom of speech.

So I created Raymond Ambler and sent him to work at the New York Public Library’s main branch. I’ve been fascinated by Carrère & Hastings’s Beaux-Arts masterpiece with the lions guarding the front entrance since I was a kid. The building is a major tourist attraction for the city, with millions of visitors passing through each year. Yet, it is also very much a working library, filled with scholars from grade-school kids checking out books from the Children’s Center on the first floor (the only circulating library in the building) to college students researching term papers, grad students writing dissertations, and Pulitzer Prize-winning authors writing books in one of the library’s study rooms. (To learn more about the building and its origins visit https://www.nypl.org/about/locations/schwarzman.)

Once I began writing the book, I felt I needed to get a better sense of the library and the work life of librarians. I’d been a bartender for a number of years—24 stints in all, many of them in New York—so in tackling the world of bars and barflies, I knew, more-or-less, whereof I spoke. But I’d never been a librarian. As much as I love libraries—and while I’ve spent time in a good many of them—I’d spent more time in bars. In order to write about a library, I needed to do more than read about it or look at it; I needed to feel it. So I started hanging out at the library.

I wrote the book and sent it to my editor. For this reason and that, she held onto the book for a while. At some point, she asked for a proposal for a second book in the series. What happened was she rejected the book I sent and gave me a contract for the proposed book, as yet unwritten, which became Murder at the 42nd Street Library.

In that first never-to-see-the-light-of-day book, Ambler was a historian and a curator in the Manuscript and Archives division of the library. For Murder at the 42nd Street Library, I changed his job to the curator of the library’s crime fiction collection. There were two things at work here: I’d made him a curator in the first place because this is the essence of the 42nd Street Library—it’s a research library, not a circulating library, with amazing collections in the Rare Books Division, the Manuscripts and Archives Division, the Berg Collection of British and American literature, and on and on.

You’ll note there’s no mention of a crime fiction collection here. That’s because I made it up, like I made up Ambler. 

There’s another reason for making him specifically the curator of the crime fiction collection. Actual librarians know too much about databases and catalogs and indexes and zillions of other information sources for an interloper like me to fake it. Curators are usually subject-area specialists. They know a lot too but about a specific area. This, I figured I could fake if I used the right knowledge area, so I invented “crime fiction” as an area of expertise. I certainly don’t know as much about crime fiction as a real expert like Otto Penzler or Michael Dirda or any number of scholars or reviewers. But it’s a knowledge area I know something about, more than the guy off the street, say. I’ve read widely, and at one point I created a college course on the detective novel as literature. 

Once I made Ambler the curator of the crime fiction collection, things began to roll. I went to the library whenever I could. After a while, I worked my way into a kind of sinecure. There are a few study rooms in the library (the Frederick Lewis Allen Room, the Wertheim Study, and the Shoichi Noma Reading Room) that you can apply for if you’re doing extensive library research. I had a book contract, which qualified me for the Frederick Lewis Allen Room, so I spent almost a year going to the library most days as if I worked there. And sort of by osmosis, I got a sense of what it might be like to be the curator of crime fiction. 

I learned a lot about working in a library in those months—nearly a year—I spent as a reader in the Frederick Lewis Allen Room. This knowledge I passed on to Raymond Ambler. His work, which includes an abiding interest in murder, is the centerpiece of his life. He’s a thoughtful sleuth. He asks questions. He ponders. He searches out answers, often in what a murder victim might have left behind in a collection at the library. 

I’m sure I missed a lot, too, of what working in a library entails. Still, I came away with abiding admiration and respect for folks who do that work, and with a character I think is a believable and honorable librarian/sleuth.

Read an excerpt from Murder in the Manuscript Room while sipping on a “Bourbon in the Manuscript Room” cocktail inspired by the book!

Comment below for a chance to win a copy of Murder in the Manuscript Room by Con Lehane!

To enter, make sure you're a registered member of the site and simply leave a comment below.

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Murder in the Manuscript Room Comment Sweepstakes: NO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN.  A purchase does not improve your chances of winning.  Sweepstakes open to legal residents of 50 United States, D.C., and Canada (excluding Quebec), who are 18 years or older as of the date of entry.  To enter, complete the “Post a Comment” entry at https://www.criminalelement.com/blogs/2017/11/setting-a-mystery-series-at-new-york-citys-42nd-street-library-comment-sweepstakes beginning at 1:00 p.m. Eastern Time (ET) November 21, 2017. Sweepstakes ends 12:59 p.m. ET November 28, 2017. Void outside the United States and Canada and where prohibited by law. Please see full details and official rules here. Sponsor: Macmillan, 175 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10010.


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Con Lehane is a mystery writer who lives outside Washington, DC. He is the author of the Bartender Brian McNulty Mysteries, including What Goes Around Comes Around, and The 42nd Street Library Mysteries, including Murder at the 42nd Street Library. Over the years, he has worked as a college professor, a union organizer, a labor journalist, and has tended bar at two dozen or so drinking establishments.

Subscribe to this conversation (must be logged in):
Albert Tucher
1. Al Tucher
Thanks (from a librarian for nearly 40 years) for the kind words about the profession, Con, and best wishes for the book.

We're hearing today about the end of net neutrality, which I believe will send people back to libraries in greater numbers than ever.
Martha LaChance
3. mlachance9
I enjoy mysteries and this sounds like a good one.
4. aliceactor
My favorite library...I'd love to win this. Thanks!!!
Jackie Wisherd
5. JackieW
I would enjoy reading this book . I like mysteries and thrillers.
Nicole Barbier
6. nbarbier
Oh, this one sounds like a book lover's favorite. A book set in a Library? Yes please!!
Deborah Dumm
7. deb730
I would really like to visit this library and luckily for me I can through your book!
Travis Donnelly
8. skeptic1955
From one former college educator (math/biology) to an0ther, I certainly would like a crack at winning your book Murder in the Manuscript Room.
Love mystery, horror, and scifi books!
Deb Shambrook
10. dkbrook
I love reading books that take place in libraries.
Deb Shambrook
11. dkbrook
I love reading books that take place in libraries.
charles mitelhaus
12. lorothecat
I love the library and New York. would love to read the book!
Gwen Ellington
13. mamadonie02
I volunteer in a library, so will especially enjoy this book!
14. Marlene Kuhl
Loved the first in the series and am looking forward to this one. As a librarian I enjoy mysteries that feature librarians.
Lisa Funderburg
15. grubrednuf
Love my local library and would love to win this book!
Renee Rousseau
16. reneejr
I am definitely going to check out the NYC Library system on my next visit! Congrats and thanks for sharing!
17. cococallahan
Looking forward to mixing a "Bourbon in the Library" - would love to win the book to peruse whilst sipping! :)
Kat Emerick
18. codyzoe
I love the libaries, sad that they closed down ours.
Donald Forsythe
19. donniecakes
Burbon and books....doesn't get much better than that!
Donald Forsythe
19. donniecakes
Burbon and books....doesn't get much better than that!
Marianne Squire-Maszer
20. Msmaszer
Love the library, intrigued by series. Just borrowed first book at Hoopla.
thanks for the chance to win.
Autumn Trapani
21. aut1063@gmail.com
This sounds like a fascinating series and I really loved reading about Con Lehane's creation process. Thanks for the giveaway!
Vernon Luckert
23. vl4095
Love a good mystery - would love to win!
Richard P. Fohrenbach,Sr.
24. RicardoBach
I love libraries, mysteries and I have been fascinated by the NYPL for decades, as a boy and as someone who worked in NYC. Would love to win this book. We live in DC area now, nice libraries around here as well. My favorite public libraries were in Santa Clara County, CA
25. Pat Willoughby
Every Saturday for years, I loved forward to hours in my towns little library but it was mind blowing to spend time in the New York City library as an adult. Amazing.
Pat Willoughby
26. Patmarie
Every Saturday as a child, I loved spending hours in the little library in my town. Loved the New York City library as an adult.
Pearl Berger
27. Sunshine
Love libraries and a mystery within even better.
Pam Walrath
28. pysupermom
I love the concept and can't wait to read it!
ellie lewis
29. italia
Libraries are always my favorite place to escape.
Catherine Myers
30. ktpotat
Mysteries and books,what more could a girl want.
Merle Carrus
31. merle
I really enjoyed the first book in this series. I look forward to reading the newest arrival. Mysteries in a library, what a great idea for a series!
pearl berger
33. beach
Love to win this captivating novel.
Sally Schmidt
34. bigcootie
Who doesn't love anything to do with a library? Thanks for the chance to win.
35. catlady
I love mysteries of this type and I am always looking for a new series to read. This sounds like a good one.
Michael Carter
36. rubydog
Please enter me in this sweepstakes.
Thanks ---
peg Mervine
37. catlady
I would love to read this and start a new series.
Patricia Fultz
39. pnfuab
Always like to read new authors. Any relation to Dennis?
Ronald Roseborough
40. Ronrose1
Love libraries, love books, love mysteries, love to win.
Corinna Curren
41. Corinna
I would love to have this book. Thank You
Lori Provenzano
42. Mountainesque
All libraries are characters unto themselves. Would love to explore this mystery.
Jenny Reynolds
44. Blackmamba886
Sounds interesting, would love to win to read it!
Joyce Mitchell
45. JoyceLm
I love mysteries based in/on libraries (retired librarian here). Thanks.
pat murphy
46. pwhitby
Hope to win , I think I would enjoy it .
Pat Murphy
47. murphyp2011
Would love to add this to my personal library. As a retired librarian of 40+ years, my own personal library would love to invite him to meet is 600+ books. Movers hate me for that load.
Katrina Yurenka
49. kyurenka
I would Very Much like to read this one!
Ida Umphers
50. idasue123
Love any mystery involving books and/or libraries.
51. H Kirsch
Don't know why when I searched my library's system under mystery/library this didn't come up. As helpful as computer searches are, they are not the Dewey decimel system.
susan beamon
52. susanbeamon
I was almost a librarian, but in those days I loved numbers more than words. Sure do like mysteries, wherever they are set.
Barbara Bolam
53. Toodles
Books and libraries, a perfect pair. Would love to read this book.
Barbara Bolam
54. Toodles
Books and libraries, a perfect pair. Would love to read this book.
Jane Minnick
57. jgminn3312@gmail.com
This appeals to me. I love libraries and I devour mysteries. I would love to win Murder in the Manuscript Room.
Jacki Robertson
58. 1228jcr
I love books, libraries and mysteries. Can't wait to read this second book in the series.
Janice Santillo
60. themommazie
A murder in the library. Sounds like a good read.
Carol Lawman
62. juju2cat
I love my library - it's never really quiet there but I always feel a great sense of peace when I visit. Thank you for the chance to win this book!
65. pcal2
I'm sorry to say I haven't read the first book in the series, but the plot sounds intriguing and I can't wait to get started on the series. Winning book two would be great!
68. LStirling
Love libraries. I had the pleasure of working in one for a couple of years while in college. A perfect setting for a book.
Kris Kaminski
70. kjkski
SSSUSH what a great place for a mystery!
Kris Kaminski
71. kjkski
SSSUSH what a great place for a mystery!
Darlene Slocum
72. darandsam
Mysteries have always been my reading choice. This one looks good.
Susan Morris
75. Samfor3
What better setting for a mystery novel than a library? Love a great read!
Andrea Andros
77. AAAndros
Thanks for the chance to win a copy of this book.
Patrick Murphy
78. Ditch
What an iconic building and a great setting for a novel!!
vicki wurgler
79. bison61
thanks book sounds good-love a good mystery
80. charlene capodice
love the cover, the book sounds to be a great read! thanks for the chance to win
charlene capodice
81. amandasmother
love the cover, the book sounds to be a great read! thanks for the chance to win
82. janedoe
Sounds like a series I would enjoy reading.
Jane Schwarz
83. Janeschwarz
The title caught my interest right away. Libraries, books, mystery, what a wonderful combination. Thanks for the opportunity to win a copy of "Murder in the Manuscript Room".
84. Polly Barlow
Thias library mytery sounds like a very interesting read. "Murder in the Manuscript Room" by Con Lehane has been added to my want to read list.
Sue Farrell
85. Suekey12
I'd like to read the entire book while sipping on a bourbon cocktail!!!
Sue Farrell
85. Suekey12
I'd like to read the entire book while sipping on a bourbon cocktail!!!
Kyva Arendes
86. AliceCarroll
One of the few writers that really gets us librarians. Read the first one, Murder at the 42nd St. Library. Am looking forward to this new one.
87. Carl Scott
What better prize could there be for booklovers like us? I'd love to win a copy, thanks for the chance
Barbara Bibel
88. bbibel
As a librarian and medideval studies person, this is a must read for me.
Randal Brandt
89. rbrandt
Like Ambler, I actually am a curator of crime fiction! I am a librarian at The Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley, where my job title includes "Curator of the California Detective Fiction Collection." I'm looking forward to reading these books!
alyce poalillo
93. alycep
I love this library and of course I also love a great mystery.
Ellie Wright
97. eswright18
I'm in search of a good mystery to read. Thanks for the chance!
Sandy Klocinski
98. attea2d
Good luck with the book! I'd love to win it. Count me in
99. jpl123456
Mystery in New York (my favorite city) on a cold Winter night with a large Irish Coffee. Hope I WIN!!!!
Abigail Gibson
100. luvlife4ever
Love this library. Look forward to reading this book.
Jill Edwards
102. jkebeans
Still love the library. Worked in the library at school for credits.
Lorena Keech
104. llkee
Wow, to spend a year in this amazing place sounds heavenly. And your article makes me want to both visit the library and read your book.
Lorena Keech
104. llkee
Wow, to spend a year in this amazing place sounds heavenly. And your article makes me want to both visit the library and read your book.
Lorena Keech
105. llkee
Wow, to spend a year in this amazing place sounds heavenly. And your article makes me want to both visit the library and read your book.
Sandra Slack
106. mz.pembroke
I love reading rooms .. and this book looks great.
107. Stephanie Liske
Thank you.
Greg Daniel
108. gregdaniel
Murder in the Manuscript Room sounds wonderful. I'm going to have to grab the first book in Mr. Lehane's 42nd Street Library series or I suppose I could start with the second - wink, wink
110. richard barr
I LOVE the 42nd stree lib!!
Patricia Boyle
112. Charleydog
I love stories centered around libraries, bookstores, or books.
Patricia Boyle
113. Charleydog
I love stories centered around libraries, bookstores, or books.
Linda Leonard
114. linsleo1
I've always been attracted to books with library settings. Would enjoy reading this one!
Sheila Cohen
115. sheilaco
It sounds like a lot of research went into this book. I love libraries and I love mysteries so this sounds like a great read for me.
Tricha Leary
119. trichie
Libraries are some of my favorite places
122. Leela
Thanks for the giveaway!
Linda Peters
123. linnett
the Library is one of my favourite places, so may reads.
Brandy Schwartz
124. brandy4598
I love that this is set in a library. I can't wait to read it.
Betty Curran
126. willitara
What a great setting for a mystery. Love libraries.
Heather Cowley
127. choochoo
Libraries have always been a bit creepy... ;-)
Estella Wortham
129. StellWorth
Book sounds interesting. Would like to read.
Joyce Lokitus
130. Joyce710113
Am a volunteer at our local library which is too small to have any curators but someday hope to check out your 42nd Street library up NYC! Your story sounds very interesting.
Anne Efron
131. mastiff_mom
Love the setting! There should be a curator for the crime fiction collection!
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