The Bactra Review: Occasional and eclectic book reviews by Cosma Shalizi   75

The Alienist

by Caleb Carr

NY: Random House, 1994


Blood Tracks

by Karen Rose Cercone

NY: Berkley, 1998.
America invented itself about a hundred years ago, and has never quite recovered. We have been an urban, mobile, corporate, violent, high-tech, information-processing, imperialistic, corrupt democracy running on advertising, mass consumption, unlimited entertainment, fossil fuels and sheer brass since about the 1880s, and we're still shocked, shocked not to find ourselves back down on the farm, looking forward to a barn-raising as the high point of the year. (We're still religious, though; we and the Iranians are the only peoples who've emerged from even partial industrialization fanatically devout.) This makes the turn of the last century a fine setting for historical fiction: remote enough to be interesting, not so remote as to be truly alien. (They do things differently there, but they do the same things.) The two books under review both use that setting; both, moreover are mysteries, or at any rate stories about murder and whodunit. That is about all they have in common. Carr's novel was a best-seller, and enthusiastically received; Cercone's is a largely unknown child of the mid-list. It is also a much better novel.

Carr has a promising premise --- the murders take place in New York City in 1896, and are to be solved by some former students of William James --- the journalist narrator, the alienist (read: shrink) of the title, and Teddy Roosevelt, the reformist police commissioner --- and proceeds to systematically ruin it. First of all, it's a serial killer story, and this reduces the plot to (as James would've put it) a mere concatenation of reflex discharges. We begin with the remains, elaborately described, of a gruesomely murdered juvenile transvestite prostitute; and not until several similar murders have been perpetrated (and described) does anyone heed our heroes' warnings about what is happening. Then the heroes must desperately race against time to figure out what makes the killer tick, on the basis of what he does to his victims; and so there's even more descriptions of corpses, and potential corpses. (This is, however, probably the only serial killer story where the profilers read Hume in the course of duty.) Nearly every protagonist (TR is mercifully excepted) is forced to confront deep dark secrets about their abused childhood. And so on, through all the conventions of that supremely hackneyed sub-genre. (Writers like Carr should pay royalties to whoever invented the formula; maybe they do.) These moves are worse than utterly predictable; they are anachronistic. (The profiling --- accurate, of course --- uses the watered-down Freudianism universal in serial-killer yarns, here as plausible as Prozac.)

Second: Carr stumbles --- or rather, throws himself --- into almost every trap that lies in wait for a historical novelist. (His characters do refrain from modern idioms.) Writers of historical fiction, of science fiction and of stories set in foreign lands all have to let their readers know how the society of the story works, at least those aspects of it which are both relevant to the story and strange to the readers. The crudest and most awkward way of doing so is to simply stop the story while someone expounds how things are, and why they are that way; SF readers call this an info-dump. Carr is in this respect, as in others, an exceptionally crude novelist, and makes the narrator deliver a one or two paragraph info-dump every few pages. (Some of these actually contain interesting information, but that's not the point.) Again: it's an exceptionally poor and shabby period which doesn't have lots of people at least as interesting and improbable as any a novelist might concoct. Why not have the protagonists encounter them, and rope them into the plot? Why not indeed? Carr has done this to the very limits of plausibility, and beyond. On top of all this, modern political concerns are projected back into the past. [Spoiler, involving unions.]

Third: the characters are cardboard --- soggy, uncorrugated cardboard. The most engaging one is Roosevelt, and I half suspect that's because he's kept off-stage most of the time. (TR is presented very sympathetically, probably more sympathetically than he deserves; but that's another story for another time.) By the end, however, I was no longer indifferent to them: I hoped the serial killer would slaughter them all. (No such luck.)

It is with considerable relief that I turn from contemplating The Alienist to Cercone's book. It is the second book in a series set in in Pittsburgh in 1905, but completely self-contained. (I've not read the predecessor.) Pittsburgh is actually an inspired choice, since it was at the time a center of industrial wealth, of technological innovation and (therefore) of often murderous struggle between organized labor and big business. (Cercone's sympathies in that struggle are clearly on the right, i.e. the Left, side, but she doesn't propagandize.) The city and its environs is described in a wealth of accurate, sooty and affectionate detail --- as is, to do him justice, Carr's New York. In every other respect I can think of, however, Blood Tracks is far superior. It has two likeable protagonists, through whose eyes we alternately peer: an immigrant Armenian cop, trying to stay only minimally corrupt, and an Irish-Italian socialist journalist, trying to live down her divorce. They actually come across as characters, with depth and lives (including no more than ordinarily dysfunctional families) beyond the immediate needs of the plot. The dialogue does not crawl across the page like a winded slug. The reader learns plenty, but does not have to endure constant info-dumps. Murders take place for perfectly rational reasons, and are solved without sham psychology. Cameos by the famous are minimal, and don't strain credulity. The plot moves briskly, despite taking several surprising twists. This is, in short, a very well-constructed and intelligent entertainment, far more enjoyable than Carr's and less than half the length.

I picked up The Alienist because I was flying across country, had foolishly brought nothing to read, and everything else in the airport bookstore looked worse; I don't think anything but the prospect of staring out the window at Iowa would've kept me reading to the end. I can't imagine reading any other fiction by Carr, unless similarly trapped by circumstances and my own poor planning. Blood Tracks, on the other hand, was very fun, and I'm certainly going to hunt down both its predecessor (Steel Ashes) and the one sequel to date (Coal Bones), and look for more books by Cercone.

The Alienist: 599 pp. paperback, 496 pp. hardback. Blood Tracks: 242 pp.

Historical Fiction / Mysteries / North America

The Alienist is currently in print as a paperback (NY: Bantam, 1995), US$7.50, ISBN 0553572997, and as a hardback, US$29.95, ISBN 0679417796. Blood Tracks is currently in print as a paperback, US$5.99, ISBN 0425162419.
22 March 1999; thanks to a colleague who prefers to remain anonymous for midnight Kahlua