RE: RARA-AVIS: the Alienist

From: Robison Michael R CNIN (
Date: 14 Jan 2002

hi carrie,

i struggled to get thru _the alienist_. i guess it was a good book but it just didn't do much for me. too much of a sense of drama on his part and too much apathy on mine.

i haven't read mark graham's books. why did you not like the series?

thanks, miker


This is an interesting question, because I can see both sides of it. Carr's

book does have a lot of elements of hard-boiled - violence, corruption, a generally negative view of human nature, and a somewhat lazy dissolute journalist narrator who fits well into the HB ethos. On the other hand, HB is about style as well as substance, and The Alienist is written in a sort of faux-late-Victorian style with a lot of "if we had but only known what dire fate awaited us. . ." Stylistically, it's much closer to Conan Doyle mixed with more than a touch of Gothic horror, than to Raymond Chandler.

Worth reading in any case. Some things about this book drove me absoutely crazy (reminds me of Tolkien in the sense that the high style often reads as

self-parody, while I get the feeling that the author is taking it completely

seriously), and there's some downright silly melodrama, but certainly a very

compelling read, interesting characters, and a completely convincing and eye-opening picture of urban life in the late 19th century. I'd like to see

Carr try a Ripper book.

"Angel of Darkness" is Carr's second book; it's been out for some time and, though I haven't read it, I understand it involves some of the same characters but a different narrator. His recent book "Killing Time" is, I think, a science fiction book not related to the previous two.

Incidentally Carr is the son of Lucien Carr, the Beat writer, who apparently

left his son with a lot of emotional baggage. I read an interview, though I

don't remember where (might have been Salon, you can probably find it with a

websearch), in which Caleb discusses his embrace of William James' psychological/philosophical theories as a complete rejection of the philosophy of the Beats. I imagine that he would consider it a compliment to be considered a 19th century throwback.

Somebody who really does write historical HB is Mark Graham; his series
(includes "The Resurrectionist" and "The Black Maria") is set in late 19th century philadelphia and draws on some true crimes of the day, including some that Carr uses in "The Alienist." I frankly didn't like the series much, though "The Black Maria" won the "paperback original" Edgar last year,

so at least somebody disagrees with me. His research at least seems to be pretty good.


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