The Angel of Darkness , by Caleb Carr. Random House, 629 pages, $25.95.
When I first picked up Caleb Carr’s The Angel of Darkness , the sequel to The Alienist , there was a heaviness to my step. Another 600 pages of Dr. Laszlo Kreizler and his klatsch of sleuths who look like America? Another thriller in which anachro-feminist Sara Howard, louche New York Times reporter John Schuyler Moore, personal assistant-of-color Cyrus Montrose and Yiddishe detectives Marcus and Lucius Isaacson, join with Dr. Kreizler to chase a killer up and down Olde Manhattan? Six hundred pages is a lot of words. Multiply by 350,000 copies, that’s a lot of trees, too.
I knew Mr. Carr, or more accurately, I knew of him. In 1993, the year of the publication of The Alienist , Mr. Carr was a familiar figure, a bicycle bachelor, a policy wonk, a tough-love guy among the radical chic at the Limbo Lounge. He wrote well and had ideas. He was spunky. He was the kind of guy who would shave the family dog on a dare. Once, he’d appeared on The Morton Downey Show , speaking up for Ronald Reagan after the President had bombed Muammar Qaddafi.
There’s a movie producer named Scott Rudin who specializes in making members of the intellectual class rich. (He has just optioned Don DeLillo’s Underworld .) Mr. Carr was Mr. Rudin’s kind of intellectual: Before The Alienist , he had published a coming-of-age novel that he said he didn’t like; co-authored a guide to American foreign policy; and written The Devil Soldier , an empathetic biography of American mercenary Frederick Townsend Ward.
But this time, Mr. Carr had a different kind of book in mind. He drew its title from an antiquated term for a psychiatrist, an alienist. His core idea-Laszlo Kreizler, shrink, joins forces with Theodore Roosevelt, expansionist-was an excellent one. Together they track a cannibalistic serial killer through 1890’s New York. Hollywood translation: Silence of the Lambs meets Ragtime . Mr. Rudin gave Mr. Carr a half-million dollars up front. The book soon became a best seller. Reviewers took it seriously and called it fun and scary. “You can smell the fear in the air,” wrote The New York Times approvingly.
In a 1994 interview with The Times , Mr. Carr said he was still learning his craft. “I’ll get better at it,” he promised. He also worried aloud that everyone was waiting for him to stumble because he had committed the sin of making money. I suppose he knew even then what he was working on, but perhaps he didn’t. When I finished The Angel of Darkness , I thought I had read The Alienist all over again. This didn’t make me happy, because I’d found The Alienist to be vague and rushed, and I’d thought, in practice, Dr. Kreizler was a lot like any other detective. I liked Mr. Carr’s concept more than the book. The Angel of Darkness is, if anything, more perfunctory and sketchy. The Alienist showed Mr. Carr to have an inchoate gift. Yet that gift failed to mature in The Angel of Darkness .
The Angel of Darkness begins in 1897, a year after The Alienist ends. Dr. Kreizler and his coterie are once again feasting at Delmonico’s. What’s different this time around, however, is that The Alienist ‘s John Beecham, with his taste for the buttocks of young boys, is now safely buried, and a woman named Elspeth Hunter, a.k.a. Libby Hatch, a resident of seedy Bethune Street, has taken center stage. You get some feel for the atmosphere of vice and horse manure. Nobody showers. The police don’t do their jobs. There’s dust everywhere. But nothing really comes alive off the page. It’s all extremely cartoony. Sort of Low Life lite.
Mr. Carr doesn’t write mysteries, he writes thrillers, so I can tell you that Hatch/Hunter is soon revealed to be a murderess. The gang must now track her down, using the infant science of psychology. Like therapy today, the tracking takes time. By the end, Hatch/Hunter has killed (I lost count) maybe eight infants, plus her husband, plus her general contractor, and she’s kidnapped a little girl. Dr. Kreizler still wants an explanation. Unfortunately, he loses the chance to debrief the killer when she is shot by an aborigine. (Don’t ask.) She takes her issues to the grave.
“‘Sufficiently euphemistic, I should think,’ [Dr. Kreizler] murmured. ‘Sara certainly knows her audience.'” Did people a century ago speak this way, even in fiction? I don’t think so. The book has many such linguistic head-scratchers. I don’t think they used the word “starving” to mean they were hungry, or said they were “dying for a smoke.” It’s unlikely they called a key participant “a player.” This is the first time I’ve seen the term “Lower East Side” used by a narrator actually or pretending to be of the period.
A best seller is a best seller, of course. If I were Mr. Carr, I wouldn’t care about any of this. Listen to his hero Theodore Roosevelt on the subject: “It [is] not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumble[s] or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly …” Bully for a new brand name in fiction.
I come to the question of why. At one point, the owlish Moore says: “In New York, the motive is generally money-and there’s very little in this city that can be accurately called ‘unusual,’ I’m afraid.”
I don’t think that’s the answer. I don’t think Mr. Carr cares about money. Let’s assume that we are all formed by our childhoods, by what the alienist calls our “context.” Let’s look at Mr. Carr himself, a bright student who grew up-I’m reading some profiles published at the time of The Alienist , including one I wrote-in a lonely East Village home, a teenager who went to Kenyon College because Harvard rejected him when his own high school wrote that he was “socially undesirable,” a man whom his friends remember using a slingshot to scatter the addicts beneath his own apartment window. Clearly, there’s anger there, a sense of alienation. If this man could put one over on tens of thousands of readers, don’t you think he would? And if he did it once, would he be able to refrain from repeating it over and over? First, The Alienist . Next, Alienists. Finally, Alienist III . A serial novelist is on the loose.