Welcome to 17th Street

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.

Latest News

Dakota Fanning Cast As Sara Howard

TNT announced today that Dakota Fanning (American Pastoral) has been cast as intrepid police secretary, Sara Howard, in the upcoming TV adaptation of The Alienist. According to The Hollywood Reporter, this will be Ms. Fanning’s “first significant TV foray since her turn in Steven Spielberg’s 2002 Syfy miniseries Taken.” In the intervening time, she has appeared in films including The War of the Worlds (2005), The Secret Life of Bees (2008), the Twilight saga (2009-10), Effie Gray (2014), The Benefactor (2015), and most recently American Pastoral (2016). In the coming years, she will also be appearing in The Bell Jar and Ocean’s Eight.

In addition, there appears to be some good news for Alienist fans hoping for a loyal adaptation, with TNT’s press release describing the character of Sara Howard in terms consistent with the source material (see below). It will be exciting to see who is cast for the remaining members of the investigative team, as well as the important historical figure of Theodore Roosevelt. Production begins in early 2017 in Budapest.

Fanning’s character, the primly dressed but beautiful Sara Howard, is the first woman hired by the New York Police Department and she is determined to become the first female police detective in New York City. Self-possessed and intelligent, Sara grew up as an only child who was doted on by her father. She not only “shakes hands like a man,” but considers herself just as competent –- if not more so –- than any of the men on the force. Well-bred and well-spoken, Sara has a keen interest in crime-solving and is immediately intrigued by the case being investigated by Kreizler and Moore.

Mandatory Photo Credit: Photo by Andrew H. Walker/Variety/REX/Shutterstock (5895246bj), Dakota Fanning of ‘American Pastoral’, Variety and Shutterstock Portrait Studio, Day 1, Toronto International Film Festival, Canada – 09 Sep 2016

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The Murder of the Century by Paul Collins

What better way to start 2017 than with a book blog about an entertaining piece of true crime that details a sensational murder that took place in New York in the summer of 1897, the same season and year that The Angel of Darkness was set—and indeed, that even inspired one of the fictional murders described in the novel. Described as “riveting” by The New York Times, this has been one of the most atmospheric pieces of true crime set in late 19th century New York that I have read to date. Provided one reads this work with both the strengths and weaknesses of this genre in mind (see below), I highly recommend this to readers of the Alienist books.

What’s it about?

A group of boys cooling off on a scorching summer afternoon in 1897 find a large parcel wrapped in oilcloth floating in the East River. Thinking they’ve made a fortunate find—it might be farm goods from Brooklyn—they eagerly unwrap the package, only to make a gruesome discovery: a headless human torso, arms still attached. The following day, a father taking his sons blueberry picking in the woods near Harlem also discovers a parcel wrapped in oilcloth. The contents of this one? The lower quadrant of a man, cut off at the thighs and waist. Meanwhile, a Long Island farmer’s ducks become sick after swimming in water turned red with blood.

The police investigating the find at the East River pier are convinced the perpetrators are medical students and make no further enquiries, even falsifying the patrolman’s report. It takes an exiled detective—one of Byrnes’ old men—to identify the grisly finds as a homicide case. However, as he starts to investigate the first few leads, he discovers that he is not the first to have made enquiries: enterprising reporters from the battling sensational newspapers of the Telegram, Herald, and World got there before him. The Murder of the Century documents the race to solve the crime and the sensational publicity circus surrounding the eventual trial, highlighting how the tabloid wars of the Gilded Age forever changed the face of newspaper journalism.

My thoughts

For years I’ve been looking for a piece of crime fiction as entertaining and evocative of late 19th century New York as the Alienist novels. The search has, by and large, been in vain. Although many attempts have been made, I have always felt that the Alienist books have been flagships in this genre that no others have quite lived up to. Given that The Murder of the Century is a work of nonfiction that I picked up simply to learn more about a real murder mentioned briefly in The Angel of Darkness, I little thought that I would find a contender here. You can therefore imagine my surprise when I started reading and found myself experiencing a similar feeling to what I’d felt back when I first picked up The Alienist.

Now, before I continue: a word of warning. The Murder of the Century belongs to a genre known as creative (or narrative) nonfiction. For anyone unfamiliar with this genre, it is nonfiction written in the style of fiction. The writing is compelling and dialogue is often included as full conversations. Even though works of this genre aim to create a factually accurate narrative, I acknowledge that this form of nonfiction has more pitfalls than any other. After all, if one is writing scenes from history as though they belong in a novel, does that not blur the line between fiction and nonfiction? However, provided that the research is thorough and the writer is careful—and that is certainly the case here where every source has been meticulously referenced—certain subjects do lend themselves to this genre. In this case, author Paul Collins notes:

The tremendous press coverage of this affair, with sometimes more than a dozen newspapers fielding reporters at once—not to mention the later memoirs of its participants—allowed me to draw on many eyewitness sources. All of the dialogue in quotation marks comes directly from conversations recorded in their accounts, and while I have freely edited out verbiage, not a word has been added.

Of course, this very strength potentially raises another issue. Specifically, given that this was the era of “yellow journalism”—and indeed, one of the purposes of this book is to highlight just how popular and competitive this new sensationalist reporting had become, often at the expense of facts—one may wonder just how accurate a work of narrative nonfiction primarily based off such coverage is likely to be. However, Paul Collins does his best to make sure readers are aware of the limitations of these sources, and has supplemented them with “court records and memoirs written by journalists and detectives from the case” as additional primary sources. My own feeling is that provided you approach a work like The Murder of the Century for what it is intended to be while keeping its strengths and limitations in mind, it can still be a thoroughly enjoyable way to gain more knowledge about a subject and time period that you might not otherwise obtain. I think of it in much the same way as TV and movie depictions of historical subject matter, such as HBO’s lauded John Adams adaptation from 2008. While the best of these adaptations attempt to portray their historical subject as accurately as possible, they are nonetheless a visual form of creative nonfiction.

In my own case, I feel that The Murder of the Century’s strength lies with its extremely atmospheric descriptions of New York in 1897. I suspect this is why it evoked the same sort of feeling I had originally experienced when reading The Alienist or The Angel of Darkness. We are there with the boys on the pier when they make their original gruesome discovery. A portrait of the grisly morgue at Bellevue is drawn for us as effectively as if we had been standing beside the slab on which the torso had been placed. And we spend a considerable period of time inside John Schuyler Moore’s world of journalism at the turn of the century. It is in this way that the book reads like the Alienist books, and is the primary reason that I recommend it to readers like myself who have tried, but failed, to find similarly atmospheric books set in New York in the late 19th century.

The other attraction for Alienist readers is the case The Murder of the Century focuses on. In Chapter 4 of The Angel of Darkness, Stevie and Cyrus collect the Isaacson brothers from a crime scene at Cunard pier. A group of boys who have been swimming to cool off found (you guessed it) a torso wrapped in oilcloth floating in the Hudson. While the case the Isaacsons are investigating is fictitious (it took place six days earlier, was found in the Hudson River rather than the East River, and the arms were removed from this torso), it was clearly inspired by the real case detailed in The Murder of the Century. In addition, one of the suspects in The Murder of the Century will likely be of interest to anyone who enjoyed The Angel of Darkness, as will the sensational trial described in the second half of the book; but to say more would give too much away.

So, if you are in the mood for a read that will take you back to the New York City described in the Alienist books, would like to learn more about John Schuyler Moore’s world of journalism in the late 19th century, or are at all curious to learn more about the real crime that inspired The Angel of Darkness’ fictitious torso case, The Murder of the Century might just be the book you’re looking for.

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Daniel Deronda by George Eliot

I’ve been trying to decide whether to include George Eliot’s final and most controversial novel, Daniel Deronda, on the 17th Street book blogs since I finished reading it over a month ago. Although Caleb Carr has never mentioned George Eliot as an inspiration for his work, this challenging novel explores several themes that may be of interest to Alienist readers. As a result, for the 11th anniversary of 17th Street, I have decided to go ahead and share my thoughts on one of the most fascinating psychological studies of human character, relationships, and society that I’ve read to date.

What’s it about?

Daniel DerondaGwendolen Harleth is about to gamble away her family fortune at the roulette table when she notices the enigmatic Daniel Deronda watching her from across the room. From this moment on, the stories of these two contrasting protagonists become intertwined as they face challenges that take them down very different paths. Although the unconventional Gwendolen makes choices that might appear to be conservative on the surface, they lead her into realms of moral uncertainty from which she struggles to escape. On the other hand, the extremely conventional Daniel’s search for belonging and identity is taken down an unexpected and unconventional path when he encounters a young Jewish woman who is also searching for her family.

George Eliot states early in the novel that, “Men, like planets, have both a visible and an invisible history.” In the way she masterfully charts the stories of these two fascinating characters, Eliot successfully demonstrates that it is indeed possible to “thread the hidden pathways of feeling and thought which lead up to every moment of action, and those moments of intense suffering which take the quality of action — like the cry of Prometheus, whose chained anguish seems a greater energy than the sea and sky he invokes and the deity he defies.”

My thoughts

Daniel Deronda, Chapter 51

“Oh — the reasons for our actions! … When you are as old as I am, it will not seem so simple a question — ‘Why did you do this?’ People talk of their motives in a cut and dried way. Every woman is supposed to have the same set of motives, or else to be a monster. I am not a monster, but I have not felt exactly what other women feel — or say they feel, for fear of being thought unlike others. When you reproach me in your heart for sending you away from me, you mean that I ought to say I felt about you as other women say they feel about their children. I did not feel that. I was glad to be freed from you.”

For any visitors who have read The Angel of Darkness, my decision to open this book blog with the preceding quote should go a long way toward explaining why I feel this novel may be of interest to Alienist readers. While the role of women in society, and more particularly the role that mothers play in their children’s development, are prominent themes in The Alienist, they become the central themes in The Angel of Darkness when we encounter a woman whose struggles in this area motivate her criminal behaviour. Moreover, in both books Sara Howard’s character helps readers understand the feeling of frustration many women in the nineteenth century would have experienced at the expectation that women needed to marry and have children in order to be considered ‘whole’.

As the preceding quote suggests, several of the women in Daniel Deronda share these sentiments, and do not conform to the nineteenth century’s ideal for womanhood, particularly with regard to having children. Indeed, the novel’s protagonist, Gwendolen Harleth, describes early in the novel just how limited the options were for women in the nineteenth century, and how frustrating this could be for women of a more independent or spirited temperament. | Continue reading →

What do you think? Leave a comment!

Daniel Brühl and Luke Evans Cast in TNT’s The Alienist

Daniel BruhlThe long-awaited news of who will be playing Dr. Laszlo Kreizler and John Moore in TNT’s upcoming adaptation of The Alienist was announced on Monday. Daniel Brühl (Rush, Inglorious Bastards, Captain America: Civil War) has been cast as Dr. Kreizler, while Luke Evans (The Girl on The Train, The Hobbit trilogy, Dracula Untold) has been cast as John Moore. TNT have also confirmed that shooting will begin in Budapest in early 2017.

While the casting of these two talented actors is certainly an exciting development, there was some troubling news to accompany this announcement as well. Namely, the description in the press release of John as “a society illustrator for the New York Times” who “always [lacks] drive and a meaning to his pursuits.” For any visitors who may feel that I am over-reacting in describing this as “troubling” — after all, John remaining a crime reporter can’t really be that important, can it? — I would ask you to remember what his role on the team was described as in the novel:

“What the hell was the idea of getting my whole house up and forcing me to go down there, anyway? It’s not as though I can report that kind of thing, you know that–all it did was agitate my grandmother, and that’s not much of an achievement.”

“I’m sorry, John. But you needed to see just what it is we’ll be dealing with.”

I am not dealing with anything!” I protested again. “I’m only a reporter, remember, a reporter with a gruesome story that I can’t tell.”

“You do yourself no justice, Moore,” Kreizler said. “You are a veritable cyclopedia of privileged information–though you may not realize it.”

… “Tell me, Moore,” Laszlo asked, “what’s your opinion of Ellison? Is there any chance he is involved?”

“Biff?” I sat back, stretched my legs out, and weighed it. “He is, without question, one of the worst men in this city. Most of the gangsters who run things now have some kind of human spark in them somewhere, however hidden. Even Monk Eastman has his cats and birds. But Biff–for all I can tell, nothing touches him. Cruelty is really his only sport, the only thing that seems to give him any pleasure. And if I hadn’t seen that body, if this were just a hypothetical question about a dead boy who worked out of Paresis Hall, I wouldn’t hesitate to say he’s a suspect. Motive? He would have had a few, the most likely being to keep the other boys in line, make sure they pay their full cut to him. But there’s just one problem with it–style. Biff is a stiletto man, if you know what I mean. He kills quietly, neatly, and a lot of people he’s supposed to have killed have never been found. He’s all flash in his clothes, but not in his work. So, much as I’d like to, I can’t say as I see him involved in this. It’s just not his–style.”

I glanced up to find Laszlo giving me a very puzzled look. “John, that is the most intelligent thing I’ve ever heard you say,” he finally announced. “And to think that you wondered why you’d been brought along.” He turned to Theodore. “Roosevelt, I shall require Moore as my assistant. His knowledge of this city’s criminal activities, and of the locales in which those activities take place, will make him invaluable.”

This being John’s role, it therefore makes little sense for his profession to be changed to “a society illustrator,” nor is it clear why such a change would be necessary for creative reasons. Moreover, while John may lack drive during investigations at times, he does take his work seriously. One need only look to the opening of the novel’s sequel, The Angel of Darkness, to see this aspect of his character on full display — not to mention making it clear why it’s important for John to be represented as a writer rather than an illustrator.

Finally, I would ask any new visitors to 17th Street to note that this news follows some deeply worrying audition recordings that surfaced earlier in the year in which it became clear that the characters of Marcus Isaacson and Sara Howard had been changed significantly from how they were portrayed in the novel. At the time, I had been hopeful that these audition recordings would not be representative of the production as a whole. For now, however, I suppose we will have to wait and see.

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