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Come on! It's a New York novel already! Readers are treated to visits to the New York Public Library, and to Long Island, meet a barkeep with a heart of gold, ride along with one of New York's finest, and, since it is New York, meet a famous author. There are plenty of dysfunctional families, as well as good friends who act better than family when the going gets tough. MURDER OFF THE PAGE has author Con Lehane's 42nd Street Library series join forces with the Bartender Brian McNulty series as the main characters in both grapple with a cold and calculating killer.
Dramatis personae: Raymond Ambler, Crime Fiction Librarian at the 42nd Street New York Public Library, whose job, perhaps, puts him occasionally in the way of a good murder that requires some solving; his son John, in the pen for a murder he says he did not commit; John's son, Johnny, whom Ambler is raising, and whom he loves; Adele Morgan, more than just another librarian to Raymond, she is a friend, a side-kick, a love interest, and an additional parent to Johnny; Brian McNulty, barkeep at the Library Tavern whose heart of gold gets him in trouble with one of the clientele; Shannon Darling (well, not her real name), a mysterious woman who trolls the bars, picking up handsome men, who drinks too much, then boasts about her sexual needs and her husband's inability to satisfy the same; Carolyn, Shannon's precocious daughter, whose suffering later in the novel she neither earns nor deserves; Shannon's husband, a real piece of work; Mike Cosgrove, NYPD homicide detective, divorced, whose daughter babysits with Johnny; Jayne Galloway, the famous author of murder mysteries, now getting on in years and so fragile-seeming, who donates her papers to the library (thereby hangs a clue, or two).
Jayne Galloway's donation of her personal papers to the Crime Fiction Reading Room starts the action of this novel rolling. Enter the papers, enter a mysterious woman, whose name is not her own, who does not seem to know how to use a research collection, and bumbles through a "research project," with the help of the Crime Fiction Librarian, then repairs to the Library Tavern, where she begins chatting up the male patrons. Brian McNulty, being the stand-up guy he is, escorts the lady to her hotel room after she has clearly had a few too many and has placed herself in danger. Suddenly, both McNulty and the lady disappear.
Since McNulty is Ambler's close pal, since Adele is Ambler's close pal. Ambler and Adele begin to search for McNulty. Things get hot for McNulty when not one, but two corpses are found way too close to him for comfort. Meanwhile, homicide detectives have discovered who Shannon Darling really is, and McNulty is in hot water.
In The City, danger is close, and not just the danger associated with thugs and other people with whom it is hard to get along. The loneliness of single parenting, of divorce, are real. Warm human contact is brief. The exigencies of making a living make intimacy a luxury. Ambler's grandson could so easily fall through the cracks of divorce, the cracks of paying the bills. When Ambler takes Johnny to visit his imprisoned father, Johnny's maternal grandmother uses her wealth and power to separate Johnny from his father and his father's declassé status as a guest of the government. Will the son be fatherless, or will Ambler's determination and tolerance hold and create that fragile connection that Johnny so wants with his dad?
In The City, as in the nation's centers of commerce and activity and in its backwaters and hick towns, a woman such as Shannon, who craves intimacy yet finds herself trapped in a marriage positively glacial, is still judged. No supposed city sophistication saves her from gossip. One of MURDER OFF THE PAGE's centers of concern is for the woman who desires a healthy and loving intimacy. How can she advertise her desire without being typed a vamp and judged a sinner bound for a hot place in the afterlife? How can she ask a man to stay with her for the night without stepping into the box reserved for homewreckers, betrayers, child-corrupters? Adele takes on the moral center of this novel when she defends Shannon from those who denounce her attempts without ever having walked a mile in her high heels. Shannon's story, and Johnny's loyalty for his imprisoned father, despite society's judgment of both of these characters, are the real strengths of what might be an ordinary, and perhaps a bit slow, police procedural.
§ Cathy Downs is Professor of English at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, where she teaches American literature and remains a fan of the well-turned whodunit.
Reviewed by Cathy Downs, January 2020
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