By Danny Leigh

Bloomsbury. 344 pp. $23.95

"The Monsters of Gramercy Park," Danny Leigh's haunting and disturbing first novel, introduces us to two very different people, an imprisoned gang lord and a celebrated crime novelist, whose lives become painfully intertwined. The criminal, Wilson Velez, was born in Panama, came to Corona, Queens, as a child, and founded the far-flung Sacred Incan Royals youth gang. He was eventually imprisoned and, after he was charged with ordering murders from prison, was sentenced to permanent solitary confinement. When we first see him, after five years of isolation, the once-charismatic Velez can barely walk or speak. We also meet Lizbeth Greene, a wildly successful but increasingly dysfunctional writer who decides that a book on Velez's life might jump-start her career. Thus begins a very strange courtship.

Greene, who rarely leaves her home, is drug-addicted and pregnant by a man who has gone back to his wife. Worst of all, "There's not a word of fiction left in her. It's all used up." That's when she sees a newsmagazine item about Velez that leads her to seek access to him. It happens that the judge who ordered his solitary confinement has died and another judge has agreed to let him return to the prison population on a trial basis. Thus Velez has a reason to grant interviews -- to show that he is repentant and should not be returned to isolation, as a law-and-order congressman is demanding. As the interviews begin, in a maximum-security prison near Pittsburgh, it becomes clear that the gang lord, although in shackles, controls the relationship. He is stronger. He senses Greene's weaknesses and knows when she is lying. He knows how much her book -- she calls it "God's Lonely Man" -- means to her. He toys with her, telling her she should lighten her hair, which leads her to ask friends if he's right. She increasingly finds him a fascinating subject. He is not only intelligent and well-read but he, too, is a writer, and one day he gives her a copy of a story he's written, "The Monsters of Gramercy Park."

This story, quoted at length in the novel, is a children's tale that is also Velez's parable of his own life. It seems that the stone gargoyles that adorn the buildings around Manhattan's Gramercy Park are inhabited by "ancient evil spirits." At night they fly over New York, seek out bad people and do mischief to them. The evil spirits are thus essentially harmless and rather endearing. The key passage in the story shows the spirits looking down on the city: "They saw old ladies and movie stars and Wall Street bankers and Sunday school teachers and all of them were doing some kind of badness." I take this to be the heart of the novel: that just about all of us are doing evil one way or another, not just the gang lord and other of society's officially designated monsters.

Leigh makes a strong case for this. Greene, the much-beloved novelist, is a kind of monster whose various lies and illegalities are slowly revealed. The prison warden and his "corrections officers" (it is a violation for the prisoners to call them guards) are shown to be hypocrites and crooks. The novel is a damning indictment of our so-called corrections industry. A priest who is hailed for having persuaded Velez to turn the Sacred Incan Royals to worthwhile community projects turns out to be an alcoholic with dark secrets of his own. The one innocent person in the novel, a shopkeeper who befriends the writer, is murdered, possibly for his kindness to her.

"The Monsters of Gramercy Park" is ultimately a meditation on the subtlety and complexity of relationships and on the elusive line between fantasy and reality. Greene, the writer, everywhere praised for her insight into the criminal mind, is hopelessly torn between two conflicting views of Wilson Velez. One is simply that he is a cunning, ruthless killer who has manipulated her, caused many deaths and richly deserves harsh punishment. The other view is that he is the victim of a conspiracy carried out by men who have much to gain from his downfall. At the climax of the novel, Greene has agreed to testify at a hearing to decide his future, and she wakes up that morning still unable to make up her mind. The reader may have the same problem, and the novel's ending doesn't make things any easier. Not that it should. This psychological thriller takes us deep inside two fascinating, seriously flawed human beings and asks us to make up our own minds about them. Leigh is a 33-year-old Englishman who, the publisher says, has been a musician and a journalist. This is an impressive start to his new career.