Saturday, May 25, 2024

A Historian Is Now History Himself

Caleb Carr, the Manhattan-born military historian and author most widely recognized for penning the 1994 period crime novel The Alienist, died from cancer this last Thursday, May 23, at his home in Cherry Plain, New York. He was 68 years old.

As Deadline recalls, “Carr was born on August 2, 1955, into a New York City family haunted by violence and abuse: His father was Lucien Carr, a Beat Generation journalist convicted of manslaughter for the 1944 killing of what today would be deemed a sexual predator. The fatal stabbing, which made headlines and history not least because Lucien’s friend and Columbia University classmate Jack Kerouac helped dispose of the knife, was depicted in the 2013 film Kill Your Darlings starring Daniel Radcliffe and Dane DeHaan. Caleb Carr would later say that the incident, along his own childhood abuse at the hands of his father, spawned a lifelong obsession with violence ...”

A 1977 graduate of New York University, Carr published non-fiction pieces in newspapers and magazines before seeing his first novel, a coming-of-age work titled Casing the Promised Land, released by Harper & Row back in 1980. He subsequently became a contributing editor to MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History; co-wrote the non-fiction book America Invulnerable: The Quest for Absolute Security from 1912 to Star Wars (1989) with his friend and mentor, James Chace; and in 1992 welcome the debut of The Devil Soldier (1992), his biography of 19th-century mercenary Frederick Townsend Ward.

The Alienist’s publication brought Carr best-seller fame but also overshadowed his reputation as a military historian. The novel’s story takes place in New York City in 1896, and embroils three principal characters—Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, a psychologist, or “alienist”; New York Times reporter John Schuyler Moore; and Sara Howard, a plucky and perspicacious secretary in Theodore Roosevelt’s New York Police Department—in a horrifying early serial-murder investigation, during which they employ then-new scientific methods to catch the killer. The novel was called “finely crafted,” “absorbing,” and “richly atmospheric,” with The New York Times’ Christopher Lehmann-Haupt saying: “You can practically hear the clip-clop of horses’ hooves echoing down old Broadway … You can taste the good food at Delmonico’s. You can smell the fear in the air …”

Just two years later, in 1997, Carr came out with The Angel of Darkness, a 600-page sequel that, while it suffered some in comparison to its predecessor, was nonetheless engrossing. Set in 1897, on the eve of the Spanish-American War, the novel follows Kreizler, Moore, and Howard (the last now a private detective) as they pursue the kidnapper of a Spanish diplomat’s daughter, only to discover what Amazon describes as “a shocking suspect: a woman who appears to the world to be a heroic nurse and a loving mother, but who may in reality be a ruthless murderer of children.”

Both The Alienist and The Angel of Darkness were eventually adapted as mini-series for TNT-TV, the former in 2018, the latter in 2020. Daniel Brühl took the role of Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, Luke Evans played John Moore, and Dakota Fanning excelled as Sara Howard.

Although readers were hungry to see more of Carr’s Victorian-era sleuthing trio, the author went on instead to deliver several unrelated works of fiction. Those included the dystopian tale Killing Time (2000) and The Italian Secretary (2005), a better-than-average Sherlock Holmes outing that finds him, along with Doctor John Watson, looking for answers to slayings at Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh, Scotland—crimes that may portend danger to elderly Queen Victoria. Carr’s most recent novel was Surrender, New York (2016), a modern-day thriller that finds a psychological profiler and a trace evidence expert being called upon to probe the violent deaths of “throwaway children” in an upstate New York county. The author also produced My Beloved Monster, a much-lauded memoir from earlier this year that detailed his 17-year relationship with a rescue cat, Masha, with whom he bonded “as tightly as any cat and human possibly can.”

In 2016, Entertainment Weekly finally—finally—announced that Carr was busy developing a new couple of Laszlo Kreizler yarns. “The first of the two books …,” it explained, “is set 20 years after The Angel of Darkness, in 1915 New York City, and is ‘centered on nativist violence and terrorism during America’s involvement in World War I’ …The second book will be called The Strange Case of Miss Sarah X, and will be a prequel to the Alienist series. In this novel, the publisher explains, ‘A youthful Kreizler, after finishing his psychology training at Harvard, falls under the spell of William James, has his first run-in with Roosevelt, and delves into the secret life of Sara Howard, heroine of the first books.’” Mulholland Books declared it would publish the first of those, tentatively titled The Alienist at Armageddon, on September 1, 2019. But that date came and went, and no book appeared. According to 17th Street, a Caleb Carr-focused Web site, “the books suffered a significant delay due to a necessary change in their concept and plot from what had originally been announced.” Carr’s “formidable” battle with cancer delayed their progress, as well.

Now, it seems, we’ll never have the chance to read either work.

We offer our sympathies to Caleb Carr’s family.

READ MORE:What Caleb Carr Taught Me About the Families We Make,” by Zack Budryk (CrimeReads).

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