To honor the passing of Elmore Leonard this week, I decided to go get my hands on some crime fiction I've been meaning to get to for years. I read The Alienist, a historical thriller from Caleb Carr, when it was first released nearly a decade ago. I loved it.
Then I found out there was a sequel.
Then I forgot there was a sequel.
When I heard Leonard was gone, something clicked. I remembered! So I ran down to B&N and grabbed a copy of The Angel of Darkness, the long-lost follow-up, with a handy little gift card I had stashed in my wallet (also long-forgotten).
Now I guess I should admit: I'm a firm believer in the idea that sequels rarely work. When I love a book the way I loved The Alienist, I'm not all that interested in an author's attempt to re-create the places and characters I already have my own relationships with. And when the original, like The Alienist, is a big hit, the pessimist in me can't help but scoff at a sequel as little more than the author's slimy shot to cash-in on a lazy layup.
Anyway. To the books.
In The Alienist Carr gave us a finely crafted image of Manhattan in the late nineteenth century, seen through the eyes of his charmingly foolish narrator, Mr. Moore. Moore is a journalist and when little boys start showing up around the city dead, deformed, dismembered, and carefully arranged in sexually suggestive poses, he consults his friend Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, Carr's rockstar protagonist.
The good doctor is a brilliant alienist, a beacon in the fledgling field of psychiatry. Kreizler scours Manhattan and beyond with the help of Moore and a small band of friends and assistants. He uses his genius in analyzing mental pathologies to track down John Beecham, the grisly serial killer responsible for the boys' murders. Carr was a historian before he was ever a novelist, and his grasp on New York City's attitudes and affairs a hundred years ago shines throughout the text. But both his characterization and his storytelling are nearly as sharp, and The Alienist held a firm grip on me all the way to its bloody end.
So. When I read the back cover of the sequel, I expected more of the same. The Angel of Darkness promised another rip-roaring tour through Manhattan in the 1890's, following Kreizler and the gang in pursuit of another murderous fiend. More of the same is what I got. Unfortunately.
There are differences, and some of them are even interesting.
We get a new narrator, a boy from the streets named Stevie who is in Kreizler's employ. He was a very minor character in The Alienist, and he brings the touching perspective only a child can to some very grown-up material. But as Stevie moves to the narrative forefront Mr. Moore fades away almost entirely, and that is to the sequel's detriment.
An even bigger change is the lack of urgency in this new investigation. In The Alienist the killer was an unimaginably violent mystery-man, and Kreizler & Co. spent much of their time in a panic, well aware that their continued failure to identify their suspect meant more and more dead little boys. In The Angel of Darkness Carr gives us the name of the villain on page one, robbing us of all the anxiety that carried his first installment. Some woman named Libby Hatch is smothering infants. Definitely bad. But we know who she is, where she lives, and what she's doing. Not nearly as horrifying as the unknown terror in The Alienist that's eventually unmasked as Beecham.
The books have so much in common it hardly makes sense to mention it, but some of the common ground is welcome. Carr describes more cutting-edge investigative techniques, and his treatment of them all is a pleasure to read. It was the art of fingerprinting in The Alienist. Here we get hair identification, ballistics tests, and the physical tells that give away a lie. Once again, we can smell and taste a version of Manhattan that hasn't existed in over a century. And we get another real-life historical figure - Teddy Roosevelt in the original, Clarence Darrow in the sequel. The courtroom dialogue during Hatch's trial in The Angel of Darkness is probably the highlight of the book, and Darrow's lines as the lead defense attorney are unforgettable.
In the end, Carr is a gifted writer who knows how to drive his words home. While Kreizler illegally exhumes a child's corpse and searches it for a bullet Carr writes "he was working quickly and carefully, like a man carving a turkey at a table full of hungry people." But for any fan of historical crime fiction, The Alienist is the only must-read. The Angel of Darkness is good - it's very good - but more than it is a clever revisiting, it is a clumsy rehash.