Welcome to 17th Street, a website dedicated to Caleb Carr and the Alienist books. It features the latest Caleb Carr news, a full author biography and interview list, book summaries and timelines for The Alienist and The Angel of Darkness along with synopses Caleb Carr's other work, analyses of the characters from the Alienist books, and information on the real history behind the Alienist books. Navigation for this site is at the top, showing the different sections of the site. Relevant links within the section (if applicable) will show up in the left column.
As the release of Caleb Carr’s newest offering Surrender, New York draws nearer, Publisher’s Weekly has listed the novel in their diverse Top 10 list of mysteries and thrillers of Fall 2016. On the list, they describe Surrender, New York as Caleb Carr’s “first major work of suspense in more than 15 years. The star is a criminal psychologist living in present-day upstate New York.” It is, of course, a lot more than that as well — you can read the full synopsis in the Other Books section of 17th Street.
Surrender, New York is published by Random House and will be released on August 23, 2016.
This month I bring you yet another book blog that I never intended to write! Anyone familiar with my reading taste will know that, like the Isaacson brothers, I have a particular fondness for the work of nineteenth century “sensation” novelist, Wilkie Collins. Although only The Moonstone, one of Collins’ more famous detective novels, was mentioned by title in The Alienist (see 17th Street’s book blog for it here), I recently read and enjoyed Collins’ lesser known 1875 work, The Law and the Lady. Given that The Law and the Lady contains one of those rarest of creatures in nineteenth century fiction — a female detective — I came away feeling that it might be of interest to any Alienist readers who have a particular fondness for Sara Howard’s character, and I know there are a lot of you out there.
What’s it about?
“What a plot for a novel!” These words, referring to events in The Law and the Lady, were exclaimed by one of the characters midway through the story. Written from the perspective of the novel’s newly married heroine, Valeria Woodville, The Law and the Lady asks readers to follow the actions and thoughts of an intelligent, determined woman who leaves a conventional life behind in order to turn amateur detective (in the mid-1870s, no less) after discovering a dark secret in her new husband’s past. Part sensation novel and part detective novel, The Law and the Lady explores themes common to many of Wilkie Collins’ better known works including gender roles and false identity in a story where a woman is attempting to succeed in an investigation where the most learned men in society have gone before her and failed.
In his Introduction to Penguin’s 1998 edition of The Law and the Lady, David Skilton, a Professor of English at Cardiff University, discusses how Wilkie Collins’ “unorthodox” domestic life (he kept two separate women and their families while being married to neither) resulted in his taking “an unsurpassed interest in women characters, and particularly in their intellects and ambitions, and the social restrictions imposed on them.” Naming the far more conventional Anthony Trollope as the only other male novelist who “stands out as seriously interested in the mental life of women and their sense of identity” during the period (you can read my thoughts on Trollope’s 1875 masterpiece The Way We Live Now in the 17th Street book blogs as well), he notes that, “What the ‘realistic’ Trollope and the ‘sensational’ Wilkie Collins had in common was the ability to look at the relations between the sexes with rather less rigidity of mind than most of their male contemporaries.”
For a work that features one of the first female detectives to appear in a full length novel, this is certainly an apt description of Collins’ characterisation of women in The Law and the Lady. For example, Sara Howard’s complaints in The Alienist about the difficulties she faces in pursuing her chosen career path due to the social restrictions of the late nineteenth century are illustrated first hand in The Law and the Lady. When Valeria reveals that she intends to discover the truth about the dark secret in her husband’s past in order to save his good name, she faces severe opposition from every side. Her husband believes that she should be “superior to the vulgar failings of her sex” (that is, curiosity). Her deceased father’s old clerk, bewildered and dismayed, exclaims, “I never heard, Valeria, of a woman doing what you propose to do. Lord help us! the new generation is beyond my fathoming.” Even her uncle, usually kind and tolerant, sardonically asks, “May a plain country parson, who isn’t used to lawyers in petticoats, be permitted to ask how you mean to do it?” And upon discovering her planned course of action, further declares:
“Do you mean to tell me,” he said, “that you are going roaming about the country, to throw yourself on the mercy of strangers, to risk whatever rough reception you may get in the course of your troubles? You! A young woman! … With nobody to protect you! … I declare to Heaven I don’t know whether I am awake or dreaming. Look at her — just look at her! There she sits as cool and easy as if she had said nothing at all extraordinary, and was going to do nothing out of the common way!”
And yet, it is this same “obstinate” Valeria who proves to be far more capable than almost any of the men she encounters. She asks her husband at one point in the novel, “Are you surprised at the knowledge of the law which this way of writing betrays in an ignorant woman? I have been learning, my dear: the Law and the Lady have begun understanding one another.” Even so, it would be wrong to imply that Valeria is motivated by feminist values. While she upturns the conventions of polite Victorian society to pursue her ends, she has done so for a decidedly conventional Victorian reason: to save her husband’s good name and, in doing so, save her marriage. For this reason, she does not find herself entirely friendless in her pursuit of the truth. Her father’s old clerk eventually comes around, and her mother-in-law (another strong and intelligent woman) clearly sees from the first that Valeria is “no fool,” admires her courage, and does what she can to help even though she feels her daughter-in-law’s plans are doomed to fail.
Nonetheless, Collins goes further than usual in The Law and the Lady in challenging nineteenth century societal norms. Where Valeria is clever and sensible, her husband is described — by his own mother, no less — as “weak-minded” and lacking fortitude. And while the novel features an unconventional cast of characters that won’t surprise any reader who has explored Collins’ other work, it is noteworthy that their eccentricities in The Law and the Lady relate primarily to gender. The most notable example is the unfortunate Mr. Miserrimus Dexter, born with a deformity and dismissed as “mad” by almost everyone in the novel. He enjoys wearing bright colours in an era when black was the norm for men (“I despise the brutish contempt for beauty and the mean dread of expense which degrade a gentleman’s costume to black cloth … I like to be bright and beautiful.”), composes and sings with a harp, does his own cooking, and partakes in needlework while conversing with visitors (“Women,” he said, “wisely compose their minds, and help themselves to think quietly, by doing needlework. Why are men such fools as to deny themselves the same admirable resource … As a man, I follow the women’s wise example.”). Within The Law and the Lady it seems that Collins was actively challenging societal restrictions and stereotypes for women and men alike.
As much as I appreciate what Wilkie Collins accomplished in this novel, I should note that parts of it can stretch a modern reader’s suspension of disbelief. Certain early discoveries in the novel depend on chance encounters, and there are sections that readers who aren’t tolerant of too much eccentricity might find tiresome (no prizes for guessing what I’m referring to here). For the most part, however, I thoroughly enjoyed my read of The Law and the Lady, and speaking from a woman’s perspective, I found Collins’ first person narration as a female to be believable and realistic. If you are new to Wilkie Collins, I would recommend starting with one of his better known works, but The Law and the Lady can make an excellent second or third choice. After all, what self-respecting Sara Howard fan wouldn’t enjoy reading about one of the pioneering female characters who started it all?
With the release of Surrender, New York drawing closer, the first trade reviews for Caleb Carr’s new thriller that have emerged this past week should excite his readership. Booklist, the American Library Association’s book review magazine, praised the novel in their starred review (a star is assigned to works Booklist editors believe are exceptional in their genre or format), describing it as a “compulsive read”. A copy from the full review, which can be found on the Booklist website, is included below:
Twenty years after the success of The Alienist (1994) and The Angel of Darkness (1997), Carr once again delivers a high-stakes thriller featuring a new band of clever, determined outcasts. When the bodies of “throwaway teenagers”—or abandoned children—accumulate in upstate New York, police suspect it’s the work of a serial killer. Using Dr. Laszlo Kreizler’s investigative methods, however, criminal psychologists Trajan Jones and Mike Li (with the help of a varied cast, which includes two preteens and a cheetah) soon determine that the staged suicides are too complex for one person. In the same way turn-of-the-century politics permeated Carr’s historical mysteries, today’s controversies inform the conflict in Surrender, New York (or provide “context,” as his protagonists would say). A justice system distorted by post-9/11 paranoia, trigger-happy cops, and self-appointed forensic experts constantly impedes the gang’s efforts, making their frustration palpable. However, the characters’ budding relationships soften the biting commentary, and their genuine desire to find the truth results in a compulsive read as secrets surface layer by layer. With gut-punching twists and the potential for a sequel, this intelligent, timely thriller will be savored by Carr’s fans and new readers alike.
Kirkus Reviews, whose full review of Surrender, New York can be found here, were similarly generous in their praise, describing the novel as:
[a] whodunit that weds leisurely nineteenth-century storytelling with twenty-first-century unpleasantness … Carr’s story poses an utterly modern question: for a career-minded politico, which is worse, a child-neglect scandal or a serial killer on the loose? We get to see both at work, including some nicely nasty mayhem … Carr’s many fans will find this well worth the wait.
Surrender, New York will be released by Random House on August 23. If you are yet to pre-order, you can do so at Amazon or via one of the other retailers listed on the Penguin Random House website.
The Turner Upfront presentation for 2016-17 held in Madison Square Garden earlier this week included a teaser for TNT’s upcoming adaptation of The Alienist. According to Deadline, the President of TBS and TNT and Chief Content Officer for Turner Entertainment, Kevin Reilly, who is apparently “a huge fan of the book,” has promised that the TV series “will be marquee programming.”
Although several other trailers have since appeared on TNT’s YouTube channel, the teaser for The Alienist does not appear to have been released online yet. However, the few comments I was able to locate on Twitter from various members of the entertainment press in response to the teaser for The Alienist were positive. Diane Gordon, freelance event reporter for Variety and New York Magazine, described the teaser for the series as having “great production value,” while Michael Schneider, executive editor for Indiewire, revealed that ten scripts for The Alienist have now been finished, and casting is underway.