Books: Cartoon killer
Kim Newman gets on the couch with a Victorian shrink
Saturday 14 March 1998
by Caleb Carr
Little, Brown, pounds 15.99
If Caleb Carr's The Alienist felt more like a high-concept pitch than a genuinely felt novel, it was at least an appealing package: an evocative cover, a "soon-to-be- a-major-film" rep and a twist that made a tired subject (serial murder) fresh again. Carr set the story in the 1890s, when few experts believed such creatures existed. Now he has followed up his success in a more traditional way by writing a sequel that hints at further volumes to come.
In The Alienist, the eponymous psychoanalytic pioneer, Dr Laszlo Kreizler, surrounded himself with a cast of eccentric assistants. switches narrators, replacing a cynical newspaperman with a redeemed criminal urchin. That means a few too many Dead End Kids circumlocutions, but otherwise it gives the sequel a fresher voice. This novel also goes after another kind of human villain. The villain of The Alienist was a serial killer, but the Angel of Darkness is a manipulative woman who compounds different brands of feminine rottenness. Carr is compelled to give us a character who alternates between two identities: a serious representative of women driven by intolerable pressure to murder their children, and a Sharon Stone-type supercriminal, who manipulates gangsters, cops and husbands with her irresistible wiles.
The background is the build-up to the Spanish-American War, which Carr sees as a template for American political vice. There's a return visit from Teddy Roosevelt, the guest-star of The Alienist, along with an appearance by the lawyer Clarence Darrow, retained to defend the villainess against a prosecution backed by Kreizler. It's a lengthy thriller, sometimes bogged down with research and melodrama, which would matter less were it not for its central failing: the thinness of Dr Kreizler.
Though Carr has the state of psychiatry circa 1897 off pat, Kreizler seems a cartoon German-accented shrink, upstaged by the villainess and almost everyone else. A sub-plot, the judicial investigation of Kreizler's practice, explains why he is often absent from the stage. But this seems like the sort of device a TV series would come up with to give its star a holiday rather than a rationale for a character's poor showing. If Carr is to continue the series, perhaps it is time for the alienist - like Sherlock Holmes in "The Lion's Mane" - to set aside his Watsons and tell his own tale.
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