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The Alienist ()


    ...we've adopted what you might call a reverse investigative procedure.  ...

    That is, we start with the prominent features of the killings themselves, as well as the personality
    traits of the victims, and from those we determine what kind of man might be at work.  Then, using
    evidence that would otherwise have seemed meaningless, we begin to close in.
        -John Schuyler Moore, The Alienist

So I was recently reading Edmund Wilson's memoir, The Twenties,  when I noticed something curious.  Wilson's a competent enough writer and was a minor celebrity in his own right--he even placed a book on the Modern Library Top 100 Nonfiction Books of the 20th Century--but I found myself only really paying attention when he's talking about the other personalities of the day : F. Scott Fitzgerald, H. L. Mencken, Dorothy Parker, etc.  They somehow seemed to be more compelling figures, and the rest of the book, which Wilson has to carry by the force of his own personality, seemed flat and less interesting.  Unfortunately, the same phenomenon plagues Caleb Carr's novel, The Alienist.

The central conceit of the story is that Teddy Roosevelt, during his stint as NY Police Commissioner, calls on two old Harvard classmates, Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (the "alienist" of the title) and New York Times reporter, John Schuyler Moore, to help investigate a grisly series of murders of boy prostitutes.  All three men were students of William James, and Roosevelt hopes that the application of modern psychological theories and investigative techniques will prove efficacious.

In 1896 though, psychology is still a young and, appropriately, controversial "science" and the police force is totally corrupt and reactionary, so Roosevelt has them operate independently, though he does loan them two detectives, the iconoclastic Jewish brothers Marcus and Lucius Isaacson, and his own secretary, Sara Howard, one of the first women ever to work for the Department, as a liaison between him and the team.  They are also joined by Kreizler's intimidating black manservant, Cyrus, and a street urchin who he's reforming, Stevie.

Though Kreizler is an obviously Sherlock Holmes-type figure, this unusual team has more of the feel of Kenneth Robeson's great Doc Savage and Avenger adventures.    Unfortunately, Carr is caught midway between trying to write a serious historical novel, a la E. L. Doctrow (whose novel The Waterworks this book so much resembles), and surrendering to the pulp fiction elements of the story.  Hewing to the middle ground serves the tale poorly; he should have just chosen a path and followed it.

Equally disconcerting, is his tendency to have major characters disappear for extended periods.  Teddy Roosevelt was a dreadful president, but he's a fascinating character.  Every time he appears he jazzes the story up, but as he fades into the background, it loses steam.  This leaves Kreizler and his genius as the star attraction, but with about 100 pages left in the novel, he too fades away for awhile.  It's arguable that the narrative line demands his disappearance, but totally unjustifiable is the extended absence of the Isaacson brothers, who provide much needed comic relief when they are on the scene, but are shipped out West as part of the investigation.  All of these problems are exacerbated by the fact that Moore, who narrates the story, is simply not a very appealing host, by turns thick-headed, petulant, and self-righteous.

The basic mystery is adequate, if really little more than an early effort at psychological profiling.  But be honest, aren't we all pretty tired of serial killers.  I know I am.  The real reason to read the book is for the 1890's flavor and the, all too brief, cameos by historical figures.  These aspects of the novel are enough to earn it a cautious recommendation, but it's a generally disappointing effort, especially considering how effective the set up is.

I was under the impression that Carr had actually sold the movie rights before the book was even published--though one would think it would have been made by now--and it has all the elements of not just a terrific film, but a potential franchise.  A director would be able to handle with visuals much of the atmosphere and historical background that Carr has to present in great blocks of explanatory prose.  Good casting would also allow for the various personalities of the team members to come to the fore.  We often see great books turned into rotten movies; here's a chance for someone to turn a promising but ultimately mediocre book into a good movie--for a change.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (C+)

  

Websites:

See also:

Caleb Carr (2 books reviewed)
Mystery
Book-related and General Links:
    -AUTHOR SITE : Caleb Carr (Random House)
    -EXCERPT : Chapter One of Killing Time by Caleb Carr
    -ESSAY : Information poisoning The author of "The Alienist" says we should stop treating the Internet like print and start regulating it. (Caleb Carr, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of Water for Gotham A History. By Gerard T. Koeppel (Caleb Carr, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of THE DIARY OF JACK THE RIPPER Narrative by Shirley Harrison (Caleb Carr, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of SHERIDAN The Life and Wars of General Phil Sheridan. By Roy Morris Jr.and A BATTLE FROM THE START The Life of Nathan Bedford Forrest. By Brian Steel  (Caleb Carr, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of OVER THE EARTH I COME The Great Sioux Uprising of 1862. By Duane Schultz (Caleb Carr, NY Times Book Review)
    -INTERVIEW : The Salon Interview, Caleb Carr (Dwight Garner, Salon)
    -INTERVIEW : with Caleb Carr (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
    -INTERVIEW : On the Lower East Side with Caleb Carr, talking about a dark obsession (Laura Reynolds Adler, Book Page)
    -INTERVIEW : Crime Time On-Line - interview - Caleb Carr
    -CHAT TRANSCRIPT : Caleb Carr (11/03/99, TIME)
    -CHAT TRANSCRIPT : 'Killing Time': Caleb Carr (USA Today)
    -PROFILE : ON THE LOWER EAST SIDE WITH: Caleb Carr; Writing to Flee the Past (MATTHEW PURDY, NY Times)
    -PROFILE :   'Killing Time' in the future : New book is not another 'Alienist,' says Caleb Carr (Adam Dunn, CNN)
    -Caleb Carr  1955- (casema.net)
    -Caleb Carr (Stop You're Killing Me)
    -REVIEW : of The Alienist By Caleb Carr (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of The Alienist By Caleb Carr (Stephen Dobyns, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Alienist (Twisted Web)
    -REVIEW : of THE ANGEL OF DARKNESS By Caleb Carr ( Ben Macintyre, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of THE ANGEL OF DARKNESS By Caleb Carr  (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
        -REVIEW : Man possessed : Get spooked by "Alienist" author Caleb Carr, in his new book "The Angel of Darkness." (Sam Jemielity, NEWCITY CHICAGO)
    -REVIEW : of THE DEVIL SOLDIER The Story of Frederick Townsend Ward. By Caleb Carr (Annette Kobak, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of AMERICA INVULNERABLE The Quest for Absolute Security From 1812 to Star Wars. By James Chace and Caleb Carr (Gaddis Smith, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Killing Time by Caleb Carr (Robin Vidimos, Denver Post)

GENERAL :
    -ESSAY : Ideas & Trends; And a Fine Brawling City It Was! (RICHARD F. SHEPARD, NY Times)

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