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The City

Reading New York

Brooklyn Murders, Depression Love, a Glamorous Librarian

Published: June 24, 2007

THIS story of police corruption begins in an unusual way,” the anonymous narrator of “Triple Homicide” explains. “It begins with a murder.”

“Triple Homicide” (St. Martin’s, $24.95) was written by an unusual author as well: Charles J. Hynes, whose day job since 1990 has been as the Brooklyn district attorney. He has skillfully produced — dare I say it? — a surprisingly readable, staccato crime novel paced like a “Law & Order” spinoff. This gritty story reverberates with largely authentic voices from the city’s underbelly, as recounted to the prosecutor-narrator by a mythical muse named Morty.

In a novel brimming with police corruption and cynicism, Mr. Hynes, in an author’s note, inoculates himself against charges of cop-bashing by graciously dedicating his book to the officers “whose courage, integrity and strength have made New York City safe for the people they selflessly protect.” In addition, he credits contemporary colleagues like Commissioner Raymond Kelly with aggressively pursuing rogues within the department.

Literary license also allows an author to indulge in some wishful thinking — in this case, the fictional prosecutor had convicted politicians on charges of selling judgeships. The Brooklyn district attorney’s office has been unable to prove such charges, although Mr. Hynes has successfully prosecuted on other grounds, among others, the former Brooklyn Democratic leader and two State Supreme Court justices.

If some of the characters in the novel seem to be cartoonish or to perpetuate ethnic stereotypes, remember that Brooklyn is, after all, a borough of larger-than-life figures. Mr. Hynes’s tormented protagonists are painfully real.

Apart from the occasional memoir (not to mention novels by Linda Fairstein, the prolific former sex crimes prosecutor in the office of Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau), New York’s prosecutors have contributed relatively little to the recent fictional crime canon.

For some of them, crime writing can be perilous. In 2001, an assistant plugging his first novel was demoted after indiscreetly claiming that Brooklyn was the best place to be a homicide prosecutor because “we’ve got more dead bodies per square inch.” Mr. Hynes attributed that demotion to other lapses, but he clearly took umbrage at the remark since he doubtless deserved credit for helping to reduce the borough’s homicide rate.

In “Triple Homicide,” the murders are committed in Brooklyn but the bodies are conveniently dumped on Long Island, outside the jurisdiction of the Kings County district attorney. Moreover, Mr. Hynes prudently places most of the book’s crime and corruption in the bad old days, before his office helped turn things around.

Ask most New Yorkers for directions to the North River these days, and you’ll most likely be greeted with a blank stare.

You may even be directed to the sewage treatment plant in West Harlem, practically the last vestige of the name that, legend has it, the Dutch bestowed on the tidal estuary navigated by Henry Hudson to distinguish it from the South River, now known as the Delaware. Dividing Lower Manhattan from Hoboken, N.J., the North River is at once majestic and treacherous, solid or liquid depending on the season, ebbing and flowing twice daily to mix fresh and sea water.

In “North River” (Little, Brown, $25.99), his 10th novel, Pete Hamill masterfully weaves the river’s ambiguity and mystery (so mysterious that the book’s cover photograph is of the East River) into a Depression-era love story that draws on some of the author’s greatest strengths: a poetic appreciation of New York and a deep familiarity with Spanish culture and classical art.

Mr. Hamill’s tale, stripped of the nuance, historical sweep and metaphysical underpinnings of his earlier novel “Forever,” is charming in its simplicity. “North River” can be read at a single extended sitting on a lazy summer afternoon.

Imagine a glamorous librarian. When Belle da Costa Greene died in 1950, she was hailed as perhaps the country’s best-known library director, a gutsy woman of mysterious origins.

While still in her teens, she had been recruited by the banker J. Pierpont Morgan to manage and expand his collection, which became renowned for its illuminated manuscripts. After she retired in 1948 as director of the Morgan Library in Manhattan, The New York Times wrote that it was Miss Greene “who transformed a rich man’s casually built collection into one which ranks with the greatest in the world.”

What was not generally known was that Miss Greene was black.

“Belle could not have achieved the social and professional prominence she did at the turn of the 20th century had she been completely open about her background,” Heidi Ardizzone writes in a seductive new biography, “An Illuminated Life: Belle da Costa Greene’s Journey From Prejudice to Privilege” (W. W. Norton, $35). “As Belle da Costa Greene, of mysterious exotic origins, rumored to be from Cuba, Portugal, New Orleans, suspected to have some black ancestry, Belle gained far greater privilege and freedom than that which Belle Marion Greener, daughter of the first black man to graduate from Harvard College, could ever have inherited in this period of history.”

Professor Ardizzone, who teaches American studies at Notre Dame, opens a revealing window on New York’s celebrity-packed post-Gilded Age society and the country’s evolving redefinitions of race and gender relationships.

Unlike many biographers, she also acknowledges what she hasn’t been able to learn about her subject’s early life and training; of the first meeting between Belle Greene and Morgan, she writes, “We do not know what words were exchanged, what first impressions were made, yet we can imagine the two sizing each other up: Mr. Morgan trying to judge her ability and her character; Miss Greene anxious to impress and trying not to try too hard, making her own judgments of the notorious man now quizzing her.”

J. P. Morgan Jr. once recalled that Miss Greene had dispatched him to personally negotiate the purchase of 11th-century English manuscripts because the asking price was enormous.

“My librarian told me she wouldn’t dare spend so much of my money,” he said after buying the manuscripts, “but just the same I wouldn’t be able to face her if I went home without them.”


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