The Great Mistake by Jonathan Lee

The Great Mistake is a historical novel about the transformation of a city and a man, and the unravelling of his death. Andrew Haswell Green is shot outside his New York City home in 1903, an old man known for his work transforming New York. A detective investigates what happened, and if it really could be a case of mistaken identity, with Green apparently unsure why the man was there to shoot him. Alongside this story runs another, that of Green’s life: growing up on a farm, looking for opportunities, and meeting Samuel Tilden, who would be a lifelong friend and source of great longing.

I’d never heard of Andrew Haswell Green, and only found out from glancing at a couple of reviews before starting to read The Great Mistake that he was a real person. The novel feels like an attempt to fictionalise some of the gaps and strange events in his life, though I don’t know what is from historical records and what is imagined or elaborated upon. The structure—cutting between the ‘present’ of 1903 as he is murdered and the case investigated, and his life in not always chronological order—brings tension to the latter narrative, which sometimes is bogged down with details of construction and industry in the later 1800s, even though there’s not really a huge case to solve so to speak. The book is more of a slow burn, rather than something with fast-paced revelations.

The central character’s attraction to his best friend, a relationship defined by longing and Green’s idea of restraint clashing with any hope of anything more happening, brings another dimension to the novel. It’s frustrating to see something play out as it must have for many people, with a sense nothing could ever go anywhere between them if they want to keep their positions in society, and their hopes of greatness. The dissatisfying, understated tragedy of it gives the book its own sense of the restraint that Green holds up as an ideal, frequently showing his feelings but not quite dwelling on them.

Combining the history of New York with the story of a change and murder, The Great Mistake  is a novel ideal for historical fiction fans who like the fictionalisation of real figures in clever ways, or looking beyond the famous landmarks or moments to see what made them. It’s an understated tragedy that can be a bit slow at times, but also does draw you in.