Like High Dive, Jonathan Lee’s 2015 novel that retold the story of the 1984 Brighton hotel bombing, The Great Mistake is a work of historical ventriloquism. This time, his chosen dummy is the 19th-century lawyer and urban planner Andrew Haswell Green. Now largely forgotten, this ‘Father of Greater New York’ was responsible for creating Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, among other Manhattan institutions. But in this remarkable novel, Lee peels back the civic laurels for which he is half-remembered to tell a much more intimate story of loneliness and self-restraint.
Opening with Green’s murder at the age of eighty-three in 1903, Lee recounts both the investigation that followed and the life that preceded it. From the barebones historical record, Lee’s imagination inflates the investigation into a tour of Gilded Age New York’s underbelly and the life into a picaresque tale charting Green’s progress from cruel childhood to self-made public official. While the police look for an explanation for Green’s death, Lee sketches one for his life, asking whether it is in fact ‘our private loneliness, our most crushing inner fears’ which ‘push us outward, at times, into greater public good’. Written in a muscular, rhythmic prose style, this