The Angel of Darkness

the angel of darkness

The Angel of Darkness (1997) by Caleb Carr is the sequel to The Alienist, or rather, a continuing chronicle of the work of Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, a 19th century psychologist using his knowledge of human behavior to solve crime.

The Alienist focused on a male serial killer who mutilated and murdered boy prostitutes in New York City in 1896. The Angel of Darkness takes place a year later, begins with a seemingly simple kidnapping case, and leads to a long road of investigation of a woman who’s left a string of dead children behind her.

The Alienist was narrated by John Moore, a friend of Dr. Kreizler and a reporter; and though Moore, and the rest of Kreizler’s intimate group–Sara Howard, the Isaacson Brothers, and Cyrus Montrose–are still present in the story, it is narrated by Stevie Taggart, Kreizler’s young ward and driver of the first book, now grown and relating the events of 1897.

It begins when Sara, now running her own private investigator service, calls upon her friends for help with her latest client–the wife of a Spanish consulate whose baby daughter Ana has been kidnapped. The situation is a delicate one, as the U.S. has been agitating for war with Spain, and vice versa. Senora Linares’ husband is unwilling to help find his own daughter, even beating his wife when she suggests they go to the police. As before, it must be an undercover investigation.

Sara enlists the help of John, Cyrus and Stevie, and the Isaacsons, but they soon realize they need the help of their friend Kreizler, who has been despondent over the suicide of one of his young patients, and the resulting investigation into his beloved Institute. They soon draw him in, however, and they zero in on one Elspeth Hunter/Libby Hatch.

They find that wherever this woman goes, in her services as a nurse or caregiver, children die. And yet her behavior leading up to their deaths is exemplary–loving, nurturing, even heroic. It’s a puzzling contradiction, one that gets to the heart of why Kreizler does what he does.

It’s a complex tale with many threads, one that Carr weaves over 700 pages. I often felt that I’d never finish the book, but each successive clue to Elspeth/Libby kept me reading, pulling me deeper into her confounding mystery. The prevailing belief at the time that women were incapable of committing such a crime as murdering children was something the group came up against again and again. If women were guilty of such crimes, the logic went, then they must be insane. But the cold, calculating behavior of Libby contradicted this conclusion in Kreizler’s opinion. The conflicting views of women (the angel/whore dichotomy) and the impossible standards women were held to during the 19th century (and have we really escaped such standards, even now?) is a central theme in the story and what makes Libby so fascinating–and tragic.

The Elspeth/Libby trail leads our group from the streets of New York City controlled by the coke-blowing gang The Hudson Dusters, to the lovely wilds of upstate New York in Saratoga County. As in the previous book, a few famous historical figures make an appearance: feminist agitator Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the ultra-wealthy Vanderbilts, and everyone’s scrappy Police Commissioner turned Naval official turned President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt. Our group suffers personal tragedies, for the group as a whole, and for Stevie in particular. It’s a big, sprawling book with street fights, courtroom drama, and even a poisonous-dart-throwing pygmy from the Philippines.

I loved the TNT limited series The Alienist, and would love to see a second season. The Angel of Darkness, with its continuing themes of the complexity and darkness of the human mind and the horrific acts resulting from it, would be, in my opinion, an admirable addition to the series. One can always hope.

All Things Alienist

alienist book

I read Caleb Carr’s The Alienist when it came out in 1994. I loved it, and then promptly forgot what it was exactly about except that a person called an “alienist” (an early psychologist, so dubbed because they believed the mentally ill were alienated from their own natures) was trying to solve a crime involving a serial killer with his knowledge of the human mind.

Fast forward 24 years, and previews of TNT’s limited series The Alienist reminded me of it, and I got very excited. I promptly watched the show (twice through, for good measure) and picked up the book again. On having discovered that there was a sequel called The Angel of Darkness, I picked that up, too. Call me obsessive.

On re-reading the book, I was eager to discover how the writers of the show had adapted the novel–what was kept in, what was left out, what was changed completely. The book gives much more detail concerning New York City of 1896, historically and architecturally, though the lavish sets on the show brought it vividly to life as well. Small details were changed, dialogue tightened up and scenes re-arranged. But I was more curious about the characters: how did they measure up?

alienist

The book is narrated by Dr. Kreizler’s friend, the New York Times reporter John Schuyler Moore (Luke Evans). In the show, he’s an illustrator rather than a reporter, which solves a few plot quandaries and tightens up the storytelling. In the book, he can seem a bit boorish (this is especially true in Angel of Darkness, which he does not narrate), but he’s more likable in the show. The show has him develop feelings for Sara Howland (Dakota Fanning), a family friend who, as the first woman to work in the NYPD (as a secretary to Teddy Roosevelt), helps with the investigation. In the book, the author nixes that development fairly early on, preferring to keep Sara the proverbial independent woman who needs no man.

john moore

Sara herself is warmer and more playful in the book, while the show keeps her somewhat cold and aloof, wrapped in a kind of armor that John tries to penetrate along the course of the show. He nearly succeeds, but it’s left up in the air as to whether she’ll actually let him in.

sara howland

Dr. Kreizler (Daniel Bruhl), perhaps, remains the least changed from book to show, although we get to see some of his more intimate moments on the screen that we couldn’t in the book, especially with his love interest, his mute ward and housekeeper Mary Palmer (who was changed from a blonde, blue-eyed beauty to a Native American beauty played by Q’Orianka Kilcher). These scenes are touching and gives us more insight into Kreizler’s vulnerability, while also setting us up more efficiently for the tragedy to come.

laszlo

The Sergeant Detectives Isaacson, Marcus and Lucius (Douglas Smith and Mathew Shear) are fraternal twins in the show, rather than Marcus being the older brother in the book, but they remain essentially the same bickering, brilliant pair. The show, for reasons beyond my comprehension, created a subplot with Marcus having an affair with a lovely single mother, a thread that had no connection to the main storyline whatsoever.

Isaacsons

I was pleasantly surprised that in the show, Teddy Roosevelt (in his role as Commissioner to the Police Department) was not portrayed as the knee-slapping, cowboy/adventurer¬† who often cried out “By thunder!” , as he was in the book. Perhaps that was the man’s actual personality, but every time I encountered him in the book, I cringed a little bit. He seemed like a caricature, someone to laugh and roll your eyes at. Brian Geraghty played the future president with a subtlety and depth that made him come across as a real person, while still making it clear he was a man of action.

teddy roosevelt

So what about our murderer? John Beecham’s life and motivations, as uncovered by our team of investigators, follows pretty much the same route as in the book, though the book naturally went into more detail. The show invented a red herring in the form of Willem Van Burgen, the son of a powerful Old New York family, to distract the investigation and put a spotlight on the way members of these families were nearly beyond the law.

The climax, while taking place in the same building in both book and show, played out quite differently. I preferred the show ending, as it was tighter and more believable. The book had Beecham clinging to Kreizler’s leg, weeping and whining, before being ultimately shot by Captain Connor. The show had Beecham defiant until the end, taunting him and trying to get away. I’m not sure which is more believable psychologically, but the show ending is better, in my opinion.

I’m about halfway through The Angel of Darkness, and I’ll have a proper review once I’m through.

If you like psychological crime thrillers, either the book or show of The Alienist (or if you’re obsessive like me, both) will keep you entertained for quite a while.

 

The Signature of All Things

signature of all things

Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things (2013) is a sweeping story about a woman scientist in a time when it was not expected or encouraged.

Alma Whittaker was born in 1800 to a self-made millionaire and his no-nonsense Dutch wife in Philadelphia. The book spans the entirety of her life, from her indulged childhood through her early years of heartbreak and the study of mosses, to her middle years of disappointment and more heartbreak. Her search for a lost husband takes her across the world to Tahiti, while her later years are spent in Amsterdam, pursuing her ideas on evolution and natural selection at the same time Darwin was coming up with his evolutionary theories.

It’s a fat 500 pages, and I loved it. I’ll not soon forget Alma, privileged and homely, brilliant and lonely, brave and stubborn. This book is full of ideas about the interplay between biology and spirituality, and the puzzle of human beings; but it’s also full of love and thwarted desire, of desperate loneliness, and the dignity of work and study.

It’s a complete arc of an extraordinary woman’s life, and despite all the heartbreak and struggle and loss, she’s content at the end of her life, having spent it doing what she loved: studying the world. Despite the mysteries that remain, it proves enough.

If you loved Gilbert’s nonfiction (Eat Pray Love, Big Magic), try out her fiction. You won’t be disappointed.

Station Eleven

station eleven

Station Eleven, by Hilary St. John Mandel (2014), takes place after a devastating flu epidemic. Far from another end-of-the-world story, this spare, eloquent novel blends everything I love about genre and literary fiction, and is another stellar example of how two styles don’t necessarily have to be mutually exclusive.

It begins with Shakespeare as Arthur Leander, a prominent actor, portrays King Lear on what is to be the last day of the known world. He suffers a heart attack on stage, and a stranger (of sorts) leaps on stage to help, but it’s too late. As Arthur dies, the Georgian Flu begins its near annihilation of the human species.

It turns out the stranger, Jeevan Choudhary, is linked to Arthur, as are many of the characters in the novel. It’s this connection to Arthur and the ripples left behind of his life that forms the core of the book, rather than any showdown between good and evil. There is an antagonist called The Prophet, a religious zealot who causes some problems for The Travelling Symphony, a band of actors and musicians who travel throughout the isolated communities after the flu (“Because Survival Is Insufficient”); but this conflict isn’t the entire focus of the book, and the Prophet himself turns out to be profoundly linked to Arthur as well.

“Station Eleven” refers to a sci-fi graphic novel written and illustrated by one of Arthur’s ex-wives, Miranda, and showcases some of the themes of the book: the mourning of a lost world, and the search for home. As the novel unfolds back and forth across time, as the threads of Arthur’s life are woven together and connections are revealed, the narrative becomes much more than another dystopian yarn. It examines the nature of fame, and the longing for immortality. It’s about art and how it connects us and reflects our experiences as human beings. It’s about memory and remembrance. It’s a book I won’t soon forget.