Tag Archives: Caleb Carr

The Lessons of Terror, Caleb Carr

Random House, 2002, 272 pages, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 0-375-50843-0

The events of September 11, 2001 had such a deep impact, in part, because they were a relatively new phenomenon. Isolated from the rest of the world by two oceans, America had seldom known the reality of terrorism. After a brief period in the seventies when airliner hijackings were the rage, terrorists seemed on their way to become an amusing shorthand for action movie villains. But surely not an actual threat, right?

That notion collapsed along with the World Trade Center. Suddenly, Americans started to ponder important questions: Why did this happen? How do you ensure that this doesn’t happen again? In The Lessons of Terror, Caleb Carr defines terrorism, takes a look at the history of the concept and suggests a way out of terror.

You’ve heard his name before: Among other things, Carr wrote two well-received historical thrillers (The Alienist and a follow-up, The Angel of Darkness) and one science-fiction novel (Killing Time)… which wasn’t so well-received. But Carr’s first advocation was military history and so The Lessons of Terror is a bit of a professional book for him, an historical exploration of past events in order to better understand the mechanics of terrorism.

Far from being limited to the stereotypical bomb-packing religious fundamentalists, terrorism -according to Carr— is nothing less than the use of violence against civilian populations in order to exert pressure on a political entity. As he demonstrates, terrorism defined as such has a long history, one that has an intricate relationship with more traditional military history. The Roman empire, for instance, waged war against enemy garrisons, but then often extended the benefits of Roman citizenship to the conquered populations. When it lost sight of this good treatment of civilians, well, Carthage burned and the empire later fell, victimized by internal rebellions and stuck in a cycle of attacks and counter-attacks.

The Lessons of Terror is largely a treatise on the history of war and its impact on civilians. It stems from terror, but touches upon subjects like the justification for war, the innocence of civilian populations, military discipline and guerrilla warfare. Carr’s (oft-repeated) main theory is that terror never succeeds: Through more than two thousand years of military history, everyone who has resorted to terror tactics has inevitably been defeated, sooner or later. It’s an encouraging statement when applied to enemies (given that the only rational solution to terrorism is to make it obvious that it’s a self-defeating tactic) but also a troubling one considering any response to terrorism; in fighting against it, the worst method is to adopt its tactics -something well worth remembering these days.

The Lessons of Terror is billed as a military history book, but I suspect that it’s closer to a mass-market vulgarization than to a serious treatise: while the depth of Carr’s knowledge of history is impressive to laymen, the argumentation, at times, seems to rely a lot on definitive adjectives rather than a complete train of thought. For us dumb readers, it’s easy to be swayed by repetitions of “terror never works”, but not as obvious to find the crucial missing information that may argue against his thesis. One suspects that, in some ways, this is “the feel-good military history book of the year!”

At the same time, there is no doubt that this is a book that aims for controversy. While I was rather distressed by Carr’s constant put-down of all things French at first, I felt much better when it became obvious that he’s an equal-opportunity agent provocateur: His casual inclusion of key American figures (Sherman, Jackson, Kissinger, Nixon, etc.) in his gallery of terrorists is a nice little tweak to just about everyone out there, and his sceptical view of American foreign policy is bound to get a rise from most quarters. Not to mention his badly-integrated screed against the American intelligence community.

While I’d be ill-informed to say whether The Lessons of Terror are truly those derived by Carr, there’s no doubt that this is an entertaining, detailed and argumentative treatise well worth reading. A short book packed with a steady stream of provocative ideas, it’s as infuriating as it is fascinating. At a time where too many knee-jerk reaction to terror are being treated as sane threat responses, it’s heartening to find that someone, at least, is willing to take a longer view of the situation. When current events serve us an unexpected curve-ball, it’s reassuring to think that, on some level, it’s merely another repetition of history. There is nothing new; just unfamiliar combinations.

Killing Time, Caleb Carr

Warner, 2000, 335 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-61095-X

We hard-core Science-Fiction geeks have a favorite past-time whenever an author best-known in another genre decides to write a genre novel; it’s called “trashing the book.” The rationale for indulging in such an immature pursuit goes a little like this: Despite decades of excellent stories, the mainstream “establishment” still poo-poohs SF. Occasionally, a member of the “establishment” decides that s/he wants to write a science-fiction story, but -ah-ha!- it’s “much too good to be called SF”. The problem is that in most cases, these authors don’t have any of the intellectual rigor expected of SF writers and make atrocious mistakes in logic, science and plausibility. Then they usually answer any criticism by saying “So what? It’s sci-fi.”

So fans usually strike back by tearing apart the novel. It’s good fun, it’s a group-affirming past-time at conventions and as long as nobody else has to listen to us, it hurts no one. So feel free to skip to the next review if you feel like it.

Caleb Carr’s main claim to fame (so far) is a pair of historical crime fiction novels set in late 19th-century New York. The Alienist and The Angel of Darkness have been justifiably lauded by critics for a certain originality (applying modern criminal procedural knowledge at the earliest possible time where it was possible to do so, not unlike Foucault’s The Name of the Rose) and a definite storytelling competence. Carr -a trained historian- has no SF background, nor has he ever attended a science-fiction convention. In short, he is Not One Of Us, and as such is a perfect mainstream target for SF geeks. Killing Time itself was published by the general fiction arm of Warner publishing (not the SF “Aspect” imprint) and the blurbs included in front of the paperback edition are all from mainstream publications (George, USA Today, Baltimore Sun, etc.)

Certainly, Carr doesn’t do himself any favor by writing a novel in which the first two pages are a broad denunciation of the Information Age, complete with the catchphrase “Information is not Knowledge”. If there’s one viewpoint certain to infuriate a whole generation of SF addicts weaned on cyberpunk’s “Information wants to be free” and the anti-Frankenstein “There are no things humankind isn’t meant to know”, well, I can’t think of a better one.

So Killing Time begins. From a straight-SF viewpoint, it doesn’t get much better; Carr’s first-person narration details how one Gideon Wolfe (presumably a criminalist/psychologist, though his talents don’t play much role in the following story) is taken away from his comfortable 2023 upper-class lifestyle by a band of traveling anarchists who have vowed to destroy the Information Age. Curious echoes of “funny SF” tales such as Matt Ruff’s Sewer, Gas & Electric resonate here, but Carr seems intent on playing it completely straight. Alas, even the characters seem stenciled from SF’s worst stock clichés: the disabled mad scientist, the beautiful female assassin, the sex-starved geek, etc.

It’s not as if there aren’t any ideas at all, mind you. Carr’s novel is an extrapolation on the means at our disposal now for faking the truth. The problem here is that these ideas don’t mesh in a coherent whole, nor do they seem organic to the plot. We are eventually asked to believe in a genius who can single-handedly build machines defying our conception of space and time. We are also asked to believe in a future where no one double-checks information against multiple established sources.

It’s not as if the novel doesn’t have substantial non-SF flaws either; Killing Time‘s pace is firmly set at “breakneck”, almost as if Carr was afraid of us asking too many questions. The protagonist seems content to be a passive onlooker throughout most of the book, being hijacked and led from one situation to another. Even for such a short book (less than 350 pages in large typeface), there isn’t much of a story here.

But, even then, Killing Time isn’t a complete disaster. Carr’s attitude is different from the usual SF assumptions, and that may be a welcome diversion for some. The speed at which the book can be read ensures that not many readers will waste too much time on it. Plus, whoever does read Killing Time will have a lot of fun at the next SF convention, whenever the subject of mainstream authors barging in the genre eventually comes up. Everyone wins!

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.

The Alienist, Caleb Carr

Bantam, 1994, 599 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-57299-7

These days, it seems that everyone loves a good serial killer thriller. A criminal type ideally suited to the needs of fiction (ie; “he has killed before… and will kill again until our heroes stop him!”), the rise in dramatic popularity of the serial killer can also find its roots in the rise of real-world cases of such criminals. While it would be foolish to maintain that the serial killer is a wholly modern creation, it does seems as if the late twentieth-century has been a breeding ground for them. You can most probably name half a dozen off the top of your head without breaking a sweat.

You could blame many factors for this recrudescence (I’m arguing for easier transportation, media coverage, broken families and MTV myself) but the problem has become so relatively commonplace that modern police science now features a special area of expertise called “profiling”. You can read John Douglas’s Journey into Darkness for details, but profiling codifies all that’s been learned from past experience with criminal behavior and tries to fit this knowledge with known details from repeat offenders in the hope to learn about the criminal and predict his actions.

Profiling as an accurate tool only took off in the 1970s, but criminals have been with us far longer. It only takes a little imagination to wonder when was the earliest time we could have conceived of profiling and applied it to a serial murderer. That’s essentially what Caleb Carr does in The Alienist, taking us to 1896 New York City.

Our narrator is John Moore, a journalist dragged more or less willingly in the hunt for a child murderer. The main character, however, is someone else; Laszlo Kreizler, a gifted alienist (psychologist) who, well in advance of his time, is making headway on the science of profiling.

The book is quick to hook us by an efficient introduction to the crimes and the team of investigators that will track down the perpetrator. (Including the requisite proto-feminist tough-girl character just so to acknowledge political correctness) New York City is a fascinating place, today or a hundred years ago, and Carr’s skill at representing the pre-skyscraper city without pedantry is one of his most laudable accomplishments.

This is not a novel that will put you to sleep. Despite the historical setting, Carr is deliciously modern in his pacing, and compelling scenes flash by at a fast clip. One annoyance, though; Carr loves cliffhanger chapter endings, so don’t plan on reading “just another chapter”, because the changes are that you’ll just keep going. Which, depending on whether you have to wake up early the following morning, might not be a bad thing.

I had the chance to curse my lack of knowledge of historical America once more while reading The Alienist, because even though the book is perfectly understandable without a history degree, there are a fair number of celebrity cameos (J.P. Morgan, Theodore Roosevelt, etc…) that hint at a superior level of enjoyment for gaslight period buffs.

But don’t worry; the only requirement to relish The Alienist is a love of good thrillers. Avid readers of crime fiction will get an extra kick of reading about the protagonists’ effort at developing proto-profiling decades before the actual event. There is an undeniable intellectual appeal to witness the investigators pieces together clues and obscure reference to eventually come at a correct answer, even if the “poor abused killer” shtick isn’t new, even a hundred years ago. It’s also a bit of a letdown when the resolution is enacted in a violent Hollywoodish manner, but that, of course, is hardly the point of the book.

It’s hard to oversell Caleb Carr’s The Alienist. Not only does it succeed on a conceptual level, giving us an original premise and an ambitious scope, but it also gets the more mundane elements correctly; the scenes, characters and the writing keeps our interest. Perhaps more successful as the sum of its parts than a die-hard crime thriller or social history, but still: Grrreat book; don’t miss it.