Murder at the 42nd Street Library

A Mystery

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This first book in an irresistible new series introduces librarian and reluctant sleuth Raymond Ambler, a doggedly curious fellow who uncovers murderous secrets hidden behind the majestic marble facade of New York City’s landmark 42nd Street Library.

Murder at the 42nd Street Library follows Ambler and his partners in crime-solving as they track down a killer, shining a light on the dark deeds and secret relationships that are hidden deep inside the famous flagship building at the corner of 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue.

In their search for the reasons behind the murder, Ambler and his crew uncover sinister, and profoundly disturbing, relationships among the scholars studying in the iconic library. Included among the players are a celebrated mystery writer who has donated his papers to the library’s crime fiction collection; that writer’s long-missing daughter, a prominent New York society woman with a hidden past, and more than one of Ambler’s colleagues at the library. Shocking revelations lead inexorably to the traumatic events that follow – the reading room will never be the same.



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Chapter 1

The morning was chilly, damp, and gray, an April Friday morning in a Brooklyn cemetery. Early April shouldn’t be so cold, but such cruel days descended on New York almost every spring. The damp, chilly air, portending rain, reminded Raymond Ambler of playing baseball as a boy on such a day, the grass recently starting to grow in green, forsythia bright yellow against the dull gray of the day, daffodils bobbing in the cold wind in the yards of row houses across the street from the parade grounds in Windsor Terrace. Your hand stung if you caught a line drive and both hands stung unmercifully if you held the bat too loosely when you hit the ball.

Ambler shivered as he waited in the chilly wind, flecked with drops of rain, for Harry Larkin, his friend and supervisor at the 42nd Street library. That Harry was late wasn’t surprising. A medieval historian, former Jesuit, and absent-minded scholar, Harry wasn’t noted for his promptness. He ran the library’s Special Collections Division as haphazardly as the proprietor of one of the dust-covered odds-and-ends stores you once found along Broadway below 34th Street before the garment district began to gentrify. What you were looking for might be there in the store, but the proprietor was the only person with a hope of finding it.

Adele Morgan, who also worked in Special Collections, where Ambler was the curator of the collection in crime fiction, asked Harry, even though he was no longer a priest, to perform the Catholic burial service for her mother. Ambler hadn’t known Adele was Catholic. He came to the funeral because in recent years she’d become his best friend.

For reasons not clear to Ambler, Adele took a liking to him the first day she arrived at the main branch of the library and hung her diploma from the School of Library and Information Science at the University of Iowa on the wall of the cubicle next to his. Since then, with the exuberance of an Iowa cheerleader and the smart-alecky cynicism of a Brooklyn roller-rink queen, she’d taken him under her wing, defending him against the not infrequent fallout from his lack of social graces, pugnacity, and proclivity to take on quixotic battles for truth and justice that no one else much cared about.

He didn’t know how old her mother was when she died. He suspected still in her fifties, not much older than him. She’d died quickly after a diagnosis of lung cancer from a lifetime of smoking—Brooklyn girls of her era began smoking cigarettes in front of candy stores and on neighborhood stoops when they were around thirteen.

On the morning of the funeral, he rode in the funeral home limousine with Adele, an arrangement that caused him some embarrassment because Adele’s on-again, off-again boyfriend Peter should by rights have been her escort. With no explanation, she took his arm and walked with him from the church to the car, leaving Peter standing on the sidewalk in front of the church. Wearing a black dress, a black veil over her pale face, her lips red with a thin line of lipstick, his friend, whom he’d always thought pretty, became, in her grief, hauntingly beautiful.

“It’s not that she died young, still in her prime,” Adele said three days earlier when she told Ambler of her mother’s death. “She never lived. She died four blocks from the house she grew up in, married young, never left the neighborhood. She went into Manhattan a half-dozen times in her life.”

Adele cried in his arms after that, her head pressed against his chest, her tears dampening his shirt. He’d gone with her from the hospital back to the house where she’d lived with her mother since she was a child, except for her time away at college. She’d made him dinner, leftover chicken casserole of some sort that seemed appropriate to the modest, working-class neighborhood in South Brooklyn.

They drank wine. When neighbors called on the phone, she spoke to them briefly. The few who knocked on the door, she spoke to on the stoop. When it got late and Ambler made to leave, she asked him to stay. He slept with her nestled in his arms, both of them fully clothed. Yet at some time during the night, their mouths met. They kissed gently and went back to sleep, Adele still in his arms. When he left in the morning, neither of them mentioned the kiss or their night together.

At the cemetery, by the time Harry finally arrived, tumbling out of a taxi a few rows of gravestones from the burial plot, the chilly wind whipped droplets of rain against Ambler’s face. He’d worn only his suit, no topcoat. The same wind pressed Adele’s black knit dress against her thighs and carried most of Harry’s words off toward Jamaica Bay. The group around the grave was small, mostly women from the neighborhood, most of them past middle age. Fewer than expected showed up because of an informal boycott by the strict-constructionist Catholics who saw the proceedings as sacrilegious because of Harry’s defrocked status. Ambler found it strange that Adele seemed to have no relatives.

Harry, normally a cheerful, roly-poly sort, a veritable Friar Tuck, was this day distracted and out of sorts but didn’t explain why until after the handful of folks who’d gathered after the funeral at what was now Adele’s home, or stopped by carrying chafing dishes of meatballs, tuna salad, and such things, were gone—and after he’d gulped down a good-sized tumbler of brandy.

“Someone was shot in the library?”

“Killed,” Harry said. “Murdered. Right in front of my eyes.”


“A man who came to my office.”

“Who shot him?”

“God, if I know … a crazed killer.”

“Is there any other kind?” Adele asked. She was frozen to the spot, a glass in one hand, bottle in the other, about to pour Ambler a glass of wine.

“A philosophical question,” said Ambler. “Does someone need to be insane to commit a murder? Perhaps. Practically speaking, insanity doesn’t provide much of a murder defense.”

“It wasn’t really a question,” said Adele.

“The killer got away?”

“It seems so.” Harry looked helplessly at Ambler, seeming bewildered by what happened, drifting off into his thoughts or memory every few seconds, staring blankly into space.

*   *   *

“What now?” Ambler asked Adele. He was helping her wash dishes and wrap and put away leftovers after they’d poured frazzled, tipsy Harry into a car service cab and sent him off.

“I want to get out of this neighborhood as quickly as I can. I’m terrified I’ll end up like my mother.” Her face was drawn, with lines at the corners of her mouth he hadn’t seen before. Her voice was strained.

“Your life will be different than hers,” Ambler said.

She straightened up from stuffing the last of the plastic containers of leftovers into the refrigerator and faced him. “How different, Raymond? How will it be different?” She sounded irritated, angry, but really she was sad. “Life is pretty miserable for most people, isn’t it? Sad, painful, lonely—” Her eyes sought his, a rebuke; then, in seconds, the sadness returned; her lip quivered. He hesitated before walking closer to her and placing his hand on her shoulder. Leaning into him, her voice small, she said, “I’m missing so much in my life.” In another few seconds, she broke away from him.

Adele was pretty, with blondish hair cut short, soft, full lips, and dimples so she looked impish when she smiled. Her prettiness seemed a kind of afterthought, as if she didn’t pay much attention to it; even so, he sensed she knew she was pretty. Her sadness made her seem fragile. He didn’t know what to say to comfort her. Like her voice, she seemed to have grown smaller. He wanted to take her in his arms. But he didn’t think she wanted that. She did want to talk, so he let her.

“She had a house. She made a living,” Adele said. Her mother had worked for the telephone company since she graduated high school. “And she had a child she raised by herself. A child was something, even if it was only me.” Adele’s voice held a good deal of regret. Things had gone wrong in her life. Her father left her mother and her early on. She’d had her own difficulties, an early romance that went badly. She didn’t explain and he didn’t ask. He sensed that what they spoke about made little difference. Talking kept her connected to someone. When he left, she’d be alone, alone in a different way than she’d ever been.

Later, on the long, jerky train ride back to Manhattan, mired in Adele’s sadness, as if it were contagious, he began to think about the murder at the library. The subway car, dingy and dimly lit, with only a few other passengers, tired and bedraggled as he was, had an ominous feel, reminding him he was in the city late at night and danger wasn’t far away—not as much danger as in years past, but reason to keep alert. He eyed his fellow passengers and checked the subway’s doors each time they opened.

Thinking about the murder depressed him. At the same time, an unsolved, or yet to be solved, homicide piqued his interest. He’d believed since he read Camus in college that taking someone’s life for any reason could not be justified. He saw no irony between this belief, a kind of pacifism, and his interest in homicide investigation. Camus’s characters battled pestilence without hope but without despair. “The task is impossible,” Camus said, “so let us begin.”


Chapter 2

The 42nd Street Library stretches along the west side of Fifth Avenue from 42nd to 40th Street. The landmark beaux arts structure houses the humanities and social sciences collections of the New York Public Library, the largest research collection of any public library in the nation after the Library of Congress.

The collections are available to journalists, historians, and other scholars, graduate students writing dissertations, authors working on books, individuals tracing a family tree, anyone who wants read a newspaper or magazine, and many others. But the books, journals, manuscripts, maps, photographs, newspapers, baseball cards, comic books, don’t circulate. The 42nd Street Library is a research library, not a circulating library. Everything stays in the library. Under such an arrangement, it has served the research needs of millions for decades.

The Rose reading room, on the third floor, is two city blocks long with rows and rows of long oak tables and chairs. The tables stretch out on either side of a small foyer and a central desk where readers turn in their call slips and pick up materials that have been retrieved by pages from the seven levels of iron and steel shelving beneath the reading room. The Rose reading room is the largest of a number of reading rooms in the building. The Manuscripts and Archives Division reading room is at the north end of the main room, the Berg Collection of English and American Literature is also on the third floor, along with the Arents Tobacco Collection and the Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle. Throughout the building are other smaller reading rooms housing collections of various sorts, including Ambler’s tiny crime fiction collection on the second floor.

On the morning after the funeral, he got to the library early, using the 40th Street entrance, across from the black and gold American Radiator Building—once the proud home office of the eponymous manufacturing company now the Bryant Park Hotel. Two uniformed city cops stood next to the security booth with the library’s guard, reminding Ambler, if he needed reminding, that a murder had taken place.

After climbing the marble stairs to the second floor, he sat at his cluttered desk, not unaware of the irony that the bookshelves on the walls around him and on another tier of shelves on a catwalk-like mezzanine above him held many of the finest detective novels ever written. It would be an hour or more before the library opened. In the meantime, he needed to call up the collection of an obscure Dallas mystery writer, Sam Hawkins, who’d written a series of police procedurals in the 1940s featuring a Texas Ranger. A graduate student working on her dissertation e-mailed the library a week earlier requesting the files. He had no idea how she’d found Hawkins or discovered his papers at the library.

The writer died in combat in Korea, leaving no heirs to claim his effects. His papers ended up in Ambler’s crime fiction collection because he’d entrusted them along with his books and other worldly possessions to his agent when he went off to war. The agent later donated them to the library and the collection gathered dust in the archive stacks until Ambler found it and added it to the crime fiction collection.

He was filling out the call slips for the boxes when the door banged open and Adele burst into the room. “Have you heard?”

He looked at her blankly.

“The murdered man is Kay Donnelly’s ex-husband.”


“She’s a reader working on the Nelson Yates collection.”

He recalled an earnest young woman, probably in her thirties, whom you wouldn’t pay much attention to until some liveliness in her eyes suggested her understated manner might be a cover for a more adventurous spirit. “I wouldn’t have thought her the type to have an ex-husband.”

Adele wrinkled her nose. “I’m surprised you paid so much attention to her. What type of woman does have an ex-husband, by the way? Different I suppose than the type like me who’s never had a husband.”

Ambler knew he’d said something wrong. He wasn’t sure what.

“Actually, Kay is the only one of that crew using the Yates collection who’s halfway civil. The head guy’s a pompous ass, and his wife’s a glamour puss who thinks she shits Baby Ruths.”

Ambler lowered the papers he’d been sorting through, to scrutinize Adele as if he weren’t quite sure what he’d heard.

“Sorry.” She tossed her head like a pony and headed for the door. “An old Brooklyn expression.”

As the morning wore on, everyone who worked in the library, it seemed, stopped by his desk, assuming—for no sensible reason—that he knew more than they did about the murder. He told them he had no idea what happened but that in most murders the victim knows the killer, so they shouldn’t suspect a killer with a vendetta against the library was on the loose and would pick them off one by one. He doubted he convinced anyone. For most of the day, the snaps and clicks of office door locks echoed along the marble hallways.

The afternoon sunny and mild after the chilly drizzle of the day before, he took his lunch to the terrace behind the library overlooking Bryant Park, where he often sat before work or after lunch in nice weather. A panhandler stumbling past reminded him of the morning he first came to work at the library. On that morning in the mid eighties, you couldn’t take three steps into Bryant Park before being accosted by a herd of winos looking for handouts or a parade of skinny, nervous kids whispering, “smoke.” A murder wouldn’t have been out of place in those days.

A freshly sodded lawn, wrought iron tables and café chairs, sculpted ivy beds, a small, cheerful merry-go-round, and fashionable Manhattanites sipping lattes from the kiosk near Sixth Avenue replaced the scraggly bushes, plastic garbage bags, beer cans, pint wine bottles, used rubbers, and sleeping winos one would have found in the park in those days. Little did he know when it began that the restoration of the park in the early nineties was a harbinger of the sanitizing and homogenizing that would turn Times Square—and soon the rest of Manhattan—into the Mall of America.

Looking up from his ham and brie sandwich—whatever happened to Swiss—he saw a truculent looking man in a well-worn trench coat, open like a sail, striding in his direction and recognized Mike Cosgrove of the NYPD homicide squad.

“Got a minute?” Cosgrove said. The detective’s twenty-plus years of dead bodies and senseless killings were carved into his face, his dark eyes blazed out of deep sockets like polished black stones, his hair, now steel gray, was still in the marine crew cut he’d worn in Vietnam. He’d given up smoking some years back, substituting toothpicks, one of which danced across his lips.

“Good to see you, too, Mike.” Ambler smiled. Despite their differences in almost all ways possible, he liked Mike Cosgrove. Besides being the only NYPD homicide detective who didn’t go ballistic when he tried out his ideas on crime detection on cases he worked on, Mike was observant, and thoughtful—and not always so sure he was right. He pondered things. He had imagination.

They’d met a few years before when Ambler began an investigation on a whim after reading about the death of a man in Kips Bay. He was intrigued by a photo of the widow in the Daily News because of something peculiar in the expression of the man standing behind her. Her husband, the man who was killed, a financier, was run over by a cab on Park Avenue South on a rainy night.

The incident made the tabloids because of the size of the insurance policy he carried—five million dollars—and the fact that the policy contained a double indemnity clause. The coincidence was so glaring he began to look into the accident. He discovered the victim died of a broken neck—not unheard of in a pedestrian fatality but not that usual either. When he phoned the NYPD detective in charge of the case, he met Mike Cosgrove. They compared notes. Later, Cosgrove found the widow and the lawyer vacationing in Cancún. The rest was history.

Cosgrove’s expression didn’t change. He nodded in the direction of the library. “In there, when I ask a question, everyone says talk to you. They think you’re in charge of the investigation.”

Ambler laughed.

Cosgrove gestured with his head, this time toward the park.

“Everyone’s nervous,” Ambler said as they walked down the steps and onto the gravel walk that bordered the central lawn.

“They should be.” Cosgrove’s hard-eyed stare took in the tourists strolling through the park and the office workers hurrying along the sidewalk on 40th Street alongside the park. A blaring horn from a delivery truck stuck in traffic interrupted the steady hum of the city. “So, what happened?”

Ambler shook his head. “All I know is rumors.”

“We’ll get to the rumors. What do you know about the victim?”

“Almost nothing. I’m told he was the ex-husband of a reader in the library.”

“A reader?”

“That’s what we call our patrons. Kay Donnelly. She’s doing research.”

“Have you talked to her?”

“Is she a suspect?”

Cosgrove raised his eyebrows. “Is she your suspect? An ex-husband fits for a victim who brought it on himself.”

Ambler shook his head. “That’s not exactly my theory.”

“What’s she like?”

“From the little I’ve seen of her, she’s intense, driven, aloof, like a lot of women who’ve worked their way up in the halls of academe. She’s an assistant—or as they say in those circles a junior colleague—of Maximilian Wagner, who’s writing a biography of Nelson Yates, a writer whose papers the library recently acquired.”

“The victim, James Donnelly, was a writer.”

Ambler shook his head. “I don’t recognize the name.”

“What about Maximilian Wagner, the guy you mentioned?”

Ambler stopped walking. He had a lot to say about Max Wagner, not anything to do with the murder though. “He calls himself a literary biographer. Actually, he’s a scandal-mongering sensationalist posing as a scholar.”

“Am I picking up distaste?”

Ambler smiled. “There you go with those powers of detection.”

“This Nelson Yates is one of yours, a mystery writer?”

Ambler nodded. “Maybe the best of his generation.”

“You know him?”

He’d like to say he did. A few years ago, he’d interviewed Yates at a library forum. They’d had dinner and drinks afterward, and talked well into the evening. After that, he’d emailed the writer a couple of times when one of his books came out, and Yates responded with thanks and a suggestion they get together again one day for a drink. You wouldn’t call them friends. Yet Harry said that during the negotiations for his papers Yates asked if Ambler was still in charge of the crime fiction collection.

“We’ve met,” he told Cosgrove. “Had dinner and a couple of drinks together. Having a drink with a hero … like you slugging down shots and beers with Dirty Harry.”

Cosgrove chuckled.

Another reason he liked Cosgrove, not what you’d expect; he got the irony of things.

“How about Larkin, the ex-priest, the director of whatever it is—”

“Special Collections.”

“Collections. Who’d want to kill him?”

Ambler stopped. Harry? Kill Harry? “No one. He’s a saint.”

Cosgrove grunted. “Saints get killed, too. That’s how some of ’em got their positions. Whoever killed Donnelly took a couple of shots at the Jesuit.”

Ambler considered this. Harry didn’t mention it. “Maybe because he was a witness.”

“Maybe. Was there some trouble with the deal for that Yates collection? Do people fight over that kind of stuff?”

Cosgrove was good, no denying it. If it was something connected to his case, he caught it. If he didn’t hear it or see it, he smelled it in the air. There was competition for the Yates papers. The acquisition was unusual—an anonymous donor provided the funding, everything done quietly, not exactly secretly, but without fanfare. Since Yates would be part of the crime fiction collection, Ambler should have been involved in the acquisition. But he wasn’t. At one point, there was a problem—meetings behind closed doors, Harry hurrying out of the library unexpectedly two or three times. No one told Ambler anything. Harry made clear he shouldn’t ask. Then, it was over. The library had the collection. He told Cosgrove what he knew.

“Donnelly, the victim, had an interest in the Yates collection. It might not mean anything. Could be he has a current wife who wanted him killed. He might have stepped on someone’s toe on the way into the library. That’s a killing they had up in the Bronx last week, only at a bodega not a library.”

When they started walking again, Cosgrove was quiet, but Ambler knew what was coming. “Are you going to get involved in this one, Ray?”

Now it was his turn to be quiet. Even before Cosgrove told him the killer shot at Harry, he was troubled. Surely, a killer could find a better place than the library to do his work—unless the killer was already there, hidden among the staff like the purloined letter.

“Are you telling me not to?”

“Would it do any good?” Ambler followed Cosgrove’s gaze as he looked out over the newly sodded, bright green lawn at the center of the park. A small fence of thin rope, no more than a foot off the ground, girded the lawn; small signs asked folks to stay off the new grass until it established its roots. “One more thing … a witness said the victim was carrying a briefcase when he got to the library. We didn’t find it on or near the body. Larkin says he didn’t see a bag.”

Ambler raised his eyebrows.

They’d circled the park twice and walked to the corner of Fifth Avenue near the library’s main entrance. Cosgrove stopped and watched a man getting a shoeshine on the stand near the corner. “Maybe the friar will open up to you.”

“You’ve lifted the ban on my butting into your investigations?”

“No. We’re better at this than you are. You got lucky a couple of times and helped. You as easily could’ve gotten yourself or someone else dead, not to mention contaminating evidence, tipping off suspects, or finding other ways to fuck up an investigation.”

“I never thought otherwise.”

Their eyes held, until Cosgrove broke off with a slight smile. “Okay, my friend, what’s next on the recommended reading list?”

“Try Yates.”

After watching Cosgrove walk away down Fifth Avenue, Ambler stood for a moment in front of the library, taking in the grandeur of the building—the lions, Patience and Fortitude, standing guard, the marble steps, the massive bronze doors, the flow of tourists up and down the stairs. Mike didn’t usually tell him any more about an investigation than he’d tell the press—things that were public. This was understood between them. He’d listen to what Ambler had to say. He might even ask Ambler what he thought of something. Ambler knew not to ask him anything beyond that about a police matter.

What he knew after talking to Mike was that the victim was a writer, had an interest in the Yates collection, and had been carrying a book bag or briefcase that disappeared. He’d also learned that the killer fired shots at Harry. Harry hadn’t told him any of this. But then he hadn’t asked him about the murder yet.

*   *   *

Near the end of the day, Ambler stopped by Harry’s office, hesitating for a moment in the doorway to watch Harry, who was working at his computer and didn’t hear him come in. He cleared his throat and knocked on the doorjamb. “Jesus, Harry! After what happened I’d think you’d be more aware of someone at your door.”

Harry looked up. “I was sending an e-mail.”

“The police think someone tried to kill you.”

On Sale
Apr 26, 2016
Page Count
320 pages