The author of High Dive returns with a novel that explores the extraordinary life, and mysterious murder, of Andrew Haswell Green, the force behind the creation of Central Park, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Natural History and New York Public Library.
... a novel so comprehensively steeped in American literary history that it comes as something of a surprise to find that its author is a fortysomething from Surrey. It’s as if Lee...has distilled more than a century of American letters into a single book. There’s Fitzgerald ... There’s Hemingway in the muscular lyricism of the prose; Sherwood Anderson and Steinbeck in the beautifully drawn portraits of rural America; there’s the restraint of Henry James in the sinuous sentences; and then there’s a host of lesser-known writers who took for their subject turn-of-the-century New York and the riotous excesses of early capitalism: Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris and Upton Sinclair ... a book of extraordinary intelligence and style, written in language at once beautiful and playfully aphoristic. It’s a novel whose protagonist—decent, dignified, wounded—will live long in the mind of those that read it, a novel that delivers wholeheartedly on Lee’s early promise.
... a seriously entertaining fictional recreation of the life and violent death of a forgotten giant in the history of New York City, Andrew Haswell Green. A sentence from page six serves notice that the novel is hugely ambitious and pleasingly odd ... This may be historical fiction, but Jonathan Lee makes his own rules ... The detective work is ingenious and provides a teasing, low-key suspense ... Among the unexpected urban delights revealed in The Great Mistake is a fine comic sex scene between a prostitute and her corpulent customer ... The Great Mistake seems to float free of its era and defy the constraints of its genre. I won’t say it’s one of a kind, only that I wish there were more novels like it.
Fiction can...conjure the past with the tools of the present. This is what Lee does, with a great deal of care and wit ... pure literary comfort food: yet another tale of gilded age New York, pitiless and gorgeous; yet another scrappy, self-made man thrusting his way up through the social strata; yet another peer into the brothels and seedy backrooms; yet another heart-hardened cop teetering on the edge; yet another contemplation of the fickleness of history, and the grand precarity of reputation. Paradoxically, it makes for quite the risk; it’s difficult to distinguish yourself in the bustle ... Much like its visionary hero, The Great Mistake feels quietly but intently ambitious, and similarly driven by the quest for a kind of tidy beauty. Lee’s prose is so carefully wrought it often wanders into aphorism. Even the Dickensian flourishes feel a little too neatly whimsical; the cruelties too exquisite. Green’s soul-shaking year in Trinidad is described with gauzy, vague beauty, but the fate of Green’s black assailant, Cornelius Williams, unfolds in the margins—it’s all too ugly ... Central Park...you’re too grateful for the sheer glorious fact of it. The Great Mistake is the literary equivalent of that too-cultivated wilderness. Go wander awhile.