The Angel of Darkness, Caleb Carr

Ballantine, 1997, 752 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-345-42763-7

For an author, one danger in writing a distinctive best-seller is to try to do the same thing again without innovation. Caleb Carr’s first novel, The Alienist, was a crime thriller set in late nineteenth century New York, featuring a bunch of characters doing their damnedest to catch a serial killer using revolutionary methods who just happen to be similar to the ones used today. In The Angel of Darkness, the surviving characters of the first novel are back once more to track down another killer using quasi-anachronistic methods.

But don’t be scared away; not only are there significant differences between this novel and the first one, The Angel of Darkness is so much fun that everyone who liked The Alienist will want to take a look at the sequel.

The biggest change in tone is that the narrator of this follow-up isn’t the cultivated journalist John Moore, but the reformed street urchin Stevie Taggert. It’s an odd choice, but a logical one given Stevie’s role is the follow-up. Stevie might not be as cynical or polished, but he’s in the middle of the story, which isn’t the case with Moore this time.

Here, the team is hot on the trail of a child kidnapper who is eventually revealed to be a far more sinister figure. The quest takes our heroes upstate, away from Manhattan and deep in rural country where the rules are completely different. Along the way, they will also have to face some courtroom drama, some late large-scale brawling and a few new characters.

What remains is Carr’s impeccable flair for recreating the atmosphere of the time and presumably exact historical references. The prose style is polished but unusually readable; even though the book clocks in at an impressive 750+ pages, it’s good enough that you won’t mind the occasional lengths and the lopsided drama which peaks well before the conclusion. The constant references (by way of narrator’s hindsight) to terrible events about to happen are simultaneously annoying, ominous and charming.

The genius of The Alienist was to bring modern procedural police methods to one of the earliest possible times when it was possible to conceive and use such things, making it both a genre novel and a genre commentary. The same also applies to the second novel, as our protagonists use controversial profiling techniques and new detection techniques. Even The Alienist‘s occasional usage of historical cameos is also repeated, most notably with the inspired presence of a famous historical character as a courtroom antagonist. There’s a lot of intellectual material to digest, from sexual roles a century ago to a bit of international politics.

The villain alone is a piece of work, a complex character whose multiple facets are fiendishly effective against our protagonists. Though one feels as if a touch too much life-history has been packed in only a few years, there’s no denying that the antagonist is more interesting than the garden-variety serial killer who starred in The Alienist.

There’s too much familiarity with the characters exhibited here to suggest that The Angel of Darkness is a book that stands alone without the benefits of having read the prequel. But as much as The Alienist is a recommended read, The Angel of Darkness also ranks as more than a worthwhile follow-up. It’s difficult to think of a satisfied fan of the first volume who’d dislike this one.

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