Sam Jemielity gets spooked by "alienist" author Caleb Carr
Caleb Carr hears voices. He sits at his desk, surrounded by a brain chart, a skull, talking in the voices of his characters, denizens of turn-of-the-century Manhattan -- the setting for Carr's novels "The Alienist" and "The Angel of Darkness." Shuttered in his lair in the Lower East Side of Manhattan for six to eight months, Carr becomes alternately possessed by his crime-solving hero, German immigrant "alienist" Dr. Laszlo Kreizler and the doctor's associates, including cultivated female detective Sara Howard, reformed street thug Stevie, taciturn stablehand Cyrus, gruff New York Times reporter John Moore and NYPD detectives Marcus and Lucius Isaacson. Not to mention the villains -- "The Alienist"'s serial murderer John Beecham, "Angel of Darkness" child-killer Elspeth Hunter -- who leave bodies for Kreizler's team to clean up. "My neighbors are always talking about listening to my apartment," Carr says of his writing routine. "I'm talking to eight different voices all the time."
Carr's not the only one possessed by those voices, however. Readers have latched on to his quirky characters, making Carr, at 42, a sudden figure on the national literary scene. After "The Alienist" became a surprise success in 1994, Carr responded to the pressure by delivering a sequel, "The Angel of Darkness," that has been just as well-received by critics and fans. When Carr read in Chicago recently, a large crowd lined up like Heaven's Gaters at Niketown.
It's a good thing Carr hears his characters' voices so well: His plan is to write a novel with each member of Kreizler's group taking a turn as narrator. In "The Alienist," the irritable Moore recounts the hunt for John Beecham. "He's the most average guy of the bunch," Carr explains, sitting in the salon at the Hotel Intercontinental, with big-band jazz bopping in the background. "I figured it'd be the easiest way for people to acclimate themselves to a different world."
Carr spent eighteen months creating the world of "The Angel of Darkness." He researched the criminological discoveries made up to the point his novel takes place (1897) -- hair sampling, ballistic matching -- and then worked them into Kreizler's investigative process. "I buy the textbooks they use at John Jay College of Criminal Justice to train people," says Carr, who has written books of military history (including "The Devil Soldier," currently in Tom Cruise's hands). "I was a couple of years short of them being able to do blood samples."
Leading readers into Carr's latest murder story is Stevie, a 13-year-old break-in expert who once handled hassles with a nice length of lead pipe. The "Stevepipe" changes his ways -- but not his mischievous attitude -- when he's saved from jail by Dr. Kreizler, who has a soft spot for abused, dispossessed children. "Stevie was a little more fun for me," Carr says. "He's a little more personal to me."
After spending time in the world of the "profiler" Kreizler, it's hard to resist an impulse to analyze the slightly guarded novelist the way his protagonist might. His father, Lucien Carr, was a Columbia University contemporary of Jack Kerouac who reportedly killed a man in self-defense, disposed of evidence with Kerouac's help and spent two years in jail. His parents divorced when Carr was eight, and his mom re-married. "We lived in some pretty crappy neighborhoods in Manhattan," he recalls matter-of-factly, "but I got to go to a couple of private schools, so I saw lots of different levels of life in New York. I spent a lot of time hanging out on the streets, not wanting to go home." Carr would hang out in museums, roam Central Park, break into water towers on hot summer nights to swim. The cops once dragged him down to the Tenth Precinct stationhouse in sopping wet shorts after one roof-top aquatic adventure.
The unspoken particulars of that dysfunctional childhood found their voice in the "Alienist" novels. When asked what Kreizler might make of his creator's profile, Carr answers, "he's very much of an alter ego for me. He'd probably have a little fun with the way I like to shield things and do things in fiction. And my own desire not to deal with my past in a more revelatory way."
These hints seem to make Carr a candidate for that oh-so-popular genre, the literary memoir. But don't count on Carr popping up as the narrator of his own life story. "What I'm trying to do with these issues about child abuse and about violence is create a reality that more people can plug into, not fewer," Carr says. "I got tired of the specifics of my own experience, sick of listening to my own voice. I want to take those emotions and make them work on a level that I would find exciting to read about -- a good adventure, with a good mystery in it, but that also deals with serious emotional subjects."
Because young Stevie narrates, and because the killer is a woman who kidnaps toddlers and kills them when they fail to respond to her nurturing, "The Angel of Darkness" delves even more than "The Alienist" into a milieu of unwanted, unloved children. Yet with Carr's canny plot twists and gift for creating distinctive voices -- even for side characters like stuttering, ferret-loving Hickie the Hun -- "Angel of Darkness" doesn't bog down in psychoanalysis.
Now with a solid sequel under his belt, Carr has to decide which character gets to speak next. "The Angel of Darkness" hints at a mystery in the past of wise-cracking, gun-toting Sara Howard. But perhaps the voice of Kreizler himself will possess Carr enough to take over an entire book. "A lot of people have asked me if he'll ever narrate one of the books," the author says. "That's a question I don't know the answer to yet."
"The Angel of Darkness," Random House, $25.95.
Copyright 1997 New City Communications, Inc.