I’ve been reading a lot of science fiction, not that the Alienist is science fiction, it’s more like historical crime story fiction. Someone recommended it too me on a Facebook post where I was asking for science fiction reading suggestions. Anyway, I read these four books in about a week. I know. I know. Only four books in a week. Shame on me. Let me explain. First of all, I’m working hard at the Greenville Arms and the Hudson River Valley Art Workshops. Second of all, I’m still drawing and painting and editing my novel(s). I’ve taken three classes at the Hudson River Valley Art Workshops, too. On top of that, I’ve stepped up on my cello playing. The shoulder surgery was a qualified success and I’m still working on my shoulder and trying to build up my cello muscles. I practice about 4-5 hours a week. Excuses executed and so now let’s talk novels.
The Alienist, by Caleb Carr, good thing he grew up in New York City and not San Francisco or he might have become just like his antagonist in the Alienist, is a turn of the 19th Century crime novel. It stars the Alienist, another name for a psychologist or psychiatrist. To find a horrible serial killer, the Alienist, Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, gathers together two jewish police detectives, who are also bickering brothers, a journalist form the privileged class, John Moore, who is narrating the story, a woman, Sara, working in police headquarters, and Teddy Roosevelt, the police commissioner and soon to be President of the United States. This dynamic group rents a floor in a building in New York City during the 19th Century and tries to solve the crime. Moore is writing this “memoir” from 1919 and the story takes place around 1886.
Those of you who read F. Austin Freeman probably have your mouths hanging open and are shaking your heads. This sound suspiciously like a Dr. Thorndyke adventure. Kreizler studies the insane, especially the criminally insane, and Dr. Thorndyke is both an MD and a lawyer and is the first forensic medical examiner. (Both are super Sherlocks Holmes.)
The more I read the Alienist, the more it seemed that Carr borrowed from Freeman. However, one of the things that Carr was unable to borrow, or steal, from R. Austin Freeman was his Victorian perspective. Freeman wrote many of the Thorndyke mysteries in the 1920s and 30s. Carr on the other hand is writing in modern times. This is unfortunate. Carr spends a lot of time in the Alienist explaining Victorian concepts, restaurants, geography and, well, things. Freeman does not do this.
Freeman is writing for his contemporaries who all remember the Victorian Era very clearly, since they lived through it. Carr uses the smart mentor and stupid sidekick approach to explaining concepts often. For example, when explaining the psychology behind the the deductions and the reasoning, he uses Dr. Kreizler as the mentor and everyone else as blank slates. When not using this literary trick, the “narrator” just tells you the history of the era directly. This way of writing is out of character for someone living in 1919. Carr is flagrantly being who is truly is, an historian explaining all the details a modern reader may miss in his books. He uses parentheses quite a bit.
WARNING: Lots of spoilers coming right at you.
I’ll give you a couple of examples. in the Dr. Thorndyke Mysteries, Thorndyke has a ‘pocketbook’. The word is not explained but it assumed that you know what a pocketbook is. Why would Thorndyke have a pocketbook? It took me 5 or so pages to realize he was not referring to what we now call a pocketbook, that is a woman’s handbag, but rather to a notebook that fits into his overcoats pocket. If Carr had written a scene like that it would read something like the following, “Dr. Kreizler removed his pocketbook (what we now call a pocket notebook) from his coat and consulted it.” Unlike writers such as Richard Henry Dana, who purposely did not define all the nautical terms he used in Two Years before the Mast, Carr defines everything always and it makes for wordy reading. Add to this that Moore is an complete ass throughout much of the book and the ending is not very satisfying, and, well, I cannot recommend it unless you like that sort of thing. WARNING: The violence and sex is very graphic. Timid souls need not apply. The bad guy is caught but it is not a satisfying ending at all.
I already bought The Angel of Darkness and therefore will read it and report back on it. However, since the Alienist is not about aliens from outer space, and is not science fiction, I am not going to relate it to the other books in the subject line of this post.
Red Shirts, by John Scalzi, is a hilarious novel about Star Trek like characters that come to life in an alternative universe and travel back in time to our universe to confront the actors and producers of their show and demand that they stop writing bad science fiction and stop killing off characters from dramatic effect. I have wanted to write a novel like this but could not get around copyright laws. Scalzi does so neatly but only referencing Star Trek and makes his novel about another science fiction space opera show written in 2012 called Chronicles of the Intrepid, a made up show. He flatly denies that Chronicles of the Intrepid is based on SG-Universe.
Red Shirts is a fast read and lots of fun and though in the CODAS he goes off the writing deep end, a la Milan Kundera The Art of the Novel and his whole the novel is dead dead schtick so why not stick an scene play in the middle of your book or a collage or a list of random words, it’s still worth reading.
I did not get freaked out until CODA II which is written in the second person, borrowing a page out of Italo Calvino’s seminal, blockbuster book If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, more on this later, and it described the car accident I had in 1983 perfectly until it got to the part about the motorcycle. I was disappointed this CODA veered off from my actual experience and somewhat relieved. I was not ready to become a character in one of Scalzi’s novels.
Speaking of novels written in the second person, Rule 34 by Charles Stross is completely written in the second person. If you are a fan of Italo Calvino and love If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler then beware, Stross is not Calvino. When I started reading Rule 32, I was upset that the novel was written in the second person. I swore that if Stross could not give me a good reason for writing in the second person by the end of the book, I would be very, very cross.
All I will say is that he does give a reasonable reason for writing in the second person, a very meta reason, but still acceptable. I was profoundly annoyed that the book was in the second person. The character development and the scene descriptions are good, vintage Stross. The story, though somewhat disjointed at times, and the plot hard to follow, was interesting. However, the ending, where he reveals why the novel is in the second person, falls short of his other books. I was dissatisfied with the ending and the number of lose strings that were not tied off. The book just ends abruptly and he uses the trick of second person to wrap it up without a nice bow or anymore than a fleeting feeling of sense and rightness. This novel should have been written in the 3rd person and plotted a more carefully.
The ending leaves one wondering what happened to the honorary consulate, Bibi, the president and the colonel, and the main character, a DI Kavanaugh, her girlfriend, and the Operation.
The Real Story, by Stephen Donaldson, is a nitty gritty, full of fighting, pain, torture, and dirty sex, space opera. It’s heavy on the opera and medium on the space. This novel also ends abruptly but it’s more of a cliffhanger marketing ploy than a literary statement. I like the book though at times I had to put it down because it was very explicit. If you’re not a timid soul, I recommend reading it. If you are, stay away from this novel and from the Alienist, else jump in, the black lagoon is nice and hot. I will be reading the rest of this series because I’m hooked.
I know I didn’t explore the science or the math in any of these books. I’m not sure there is much to explore. Thus, I concentrated on the history, the writing, and the story telling.