"The Great Mistake" | Reviewed by Chris Stuckenschneider
Don’t let your attention be diverted by books of lesser merit—“The Great Mistake” is an eloquently written work of historical fiction overlaid with a mystery that’s unsolved until the final pages.
It begins with Andrew Haskell Green’s murder on Friday the 13th, 1903, outside his Park Avenue home. Green was 83.
If you’re a fan of books like the “Devil in the White City,” and other favs by Eric Larson, you’ll embrace Jonathan Lee’s masterful writing as he imagines the life of Green, a lawyer, city planner and civic leader known as the “Father of Greater New York City.”
Among his many contributions, Green is credited with masterminding the creation of Central Park. His leadership on the Central Park Commission also (1857-1871) also led to him spearheading the creation of the American Museum of Natural History, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Bronx Zoo, the New York Public Library and other projects.
All this from a country boy, one of 11 children born to an abusive father, a child with low self-esteem, a boy shamed for his lack of toughness and awkwardness—chastised for his friendship with another boy—a relationship that made his father pack him off, sending his son to New York City to work and earn money to send back to the family.
In the city he worked in “mercantile trade” at Hinsdale & Atkins, and secretly studied engineering from a book he hid under the counter. It’s believed he met “upmarket” lawyer Samuel Tilden there and began a relationship that lasted throughout their lives, one fraught with turmoil, Green as always unsure of himself, Tilden mostly maintaining the upper hand.
It was Tilden’s influence that changed the course of Green’s future. After having success in Trinidad working in the sugar industry, Green returned to New York City and became a lawyer.
The beauty of this engaging read is Lee’s gift as a storyteller and his ability to get into his characters’ heads. There are several standouts in addition to Green and Tilden, the policeman on the murder case, Inspector McClusky, and Bessie Davis, a high-class lady of the night with quite a roster of successful men clients.
After a bevy of light reads this summer, it was a pleasure to read “The Great Mistake,” a smart book with a clever conclusion and characters that stayed with me.