The Right Stuff

For my Detective Fiction class this term, we’re reading Caleb Carr’s novel The Alienist. We were asked to consider its place in detective fiction. I chose to discuss its place in culture, and the importance place it has in my life. I also talk about astronauts. This is one of the more straight-up “talk about me” pieces that’s appeared on this site. It’s rather lengthy, so I’m putting it after a jump.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes in the Victorian era, when smoking cities bred callow crime and defied all reason, an age that called out for a hero whose tools were order and harmony (to steal a phrase from one Stephen Joshua Sondheim), not fists and violence.

The bodies of young Englishmen left scattered on the fields of Ypres and Flanders so scarred the psyche of men who returned home that they fled to the pastoral countryside evoked by the lush romantic symphonies of Ralph Vaughn Williams. Agatha Christie was there waiting to point out that even quaint English villages were no escape from the festering corruption and callousness that sent so many young men to die in a needless war.

Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler exploded from the pages of Black Mask magazine as an American counterpart to Christie, trading effete intellectualism for brawny self-awareness. While they often solved problems with their guns and their fists, they also realized that the smiling man with money and power was a more dangerous foe than the Nazi scientist or Japanese spy…and even more dangerous than any of them was their protagonist’s own potential for violence.

The forties gave way to a noir-ish, post-war ennui laced with atomic terror and mafia thugs–like in Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat–went suburban. By the late 60s and 70s, Humphrey Bogart and Dana Andrews gave way to Jack Nicholson and Gene Hackman, and Philip Marlowe looked like Eliot Gould in The Long Goodbye. That shaggy-dog film had its own smiling suburban sleazeball sadist running things, as did films like Night Moves and Point Blank, but Maltese Falcon director John Huston gave them a name, a face, and topped them all in Chinatown when he told Nicholson’s J.J. Gittes, “Most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they’re capable of anything.”

Doyle and Christie, Chandler and Chinatown. All left their indelible mark on the detective novel in one way or another. But the most influential detective fiction author of the last 30 years–without whom The Alienist wouldn’t be possible–is a reclusive writer from Tennessee named Thomas Harris.


 I’m twenty-eight. I am a child of the post-Etan Patz-Adam Walsh era, where it no longer became safe to let your kids out of your sight, an era where “stranger danger” and “good touch bad touch” went along with learning your ABCs, an era where Walter Cronkite gave way to lurid sensationalism. Along with AIDS and Alan Menken, I grew up with a litany of boogeymen and their victims: Polly Klass, snatched from a sleepover; Marybeth Tinning, who murdered her own children for attention; Ted Bundy and Manson, charismatic killers without remorse; “The Night Stalker” Ramierez, motivated by Satanism and heavy metal; Gacy the Killer Clown; and in my hometown of Northeastern Ohio, the cannibal Jeffrey Dahlmer.

Their crimes were reenacted on Current Affair and A&E, their visages splattered across true crime paperbacks and tabloid magazines. Reports of serial killers and superpredators haunted us, merging with fictional slasher counterparts; Jason, Freddy, Michael Myers.  It was said that there were thousands out there, just waiting for you, in that van, behind the Dairy Queen. Puppies and candy were their tools of the trade. After all, it happened to…well, not you, but a friend of a friend. (This was often the case with Dahlmer in Akron. My junior high math teacher went to his high school, and my memory says there was always somebody swearing they knew where his first bodies were buried.)

But of all these, real or imagined, Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter stands above them with a smile and a bottle of Chianti. A former psychiatrist and genius criminal “profiler,” Lecter’s taste for the finer things in life is matched only by his fondness for human flesh. While he first appeared in Harris’ 1981 novel Red Dragon, it wasn’t until the best-selling novel Silence of the Lambs and Anthony Hopkins’ indelible performance in the film adaptation that Lecter took his place as the boogeymen to end all boogeymen. . He is Faust’s Mestophiles and Milton’s Lucifer. He’s erudite, cunning, sociopathic, seductive. He is Bundy with his broken arm and Gacy with his clown makeup, the fellow next door, the man you tell your thoughts to, the shrink you trust…right up until he splits you open.

Harris paired Lecter with a couple of modern detectives to grapple with in his books, the tortured Will Graham, himself a former Lecter victim, in Red Dragon, and the pretty, naive Clarice Starling, haunted by the screaming of those lambs. Graham and Starling are equivalents to Chandler’s realist hero taken past the mean streets and into darker ones, places where monsters lurk, places evoking Nietzsche: “Whoever fights monsters must be careful that they do not become a monster.” In both Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs, Lecter is set against an even darker serial killer, someone with far less erudition than himself, and, just as it was in the days of Holmes, order and reason (via psychology and “criminal profiling”) are what allow the detectives to solve the crime.


While serial killer and FBI profiler centered fiction were popular before Thomas Harris, Red Dragon and Silence sent the trend into hyperdrive. It also sent historians and sensationalists alike combing through microfilm and yellowing papers of yellow journalism for antecedents to this very modern bogeyman, the serial killer. H.H. Holmes, considered to be one of the first in America, appears as just that–a bogeyman–in the opening pages of Caleb Carr’s masterpiece The Alienist. The novel is set in 1896 New York City, and one of the reasons it is brilliant is because it came out in 1994. With its vivid descriptions of the city, a city going through tremendous growth and change as it rushes towards the 20th century — the American Century — Carr captures the overwhelming optimism amid squalor with the same wit and tenacity that Doyle did his own contemporary London. It’s a testament to Carr’s gift as a historian that he did it so well — or I assume, as I’m not an immortal vampire who was actually around in 1896.

While Carr’s language and description of places like Delmonico’s and characters like Theodore Roosevelt (my love for the future 26th President stems in part from early exposure to him, bold and bracing, in The Alienist) give it romance, his honesty about conditions — particularly for women, children, and minorities — give The Alienist panache. The darkness of Christie and Chandler are apt here, though any sense of noir is lost. I define noir as having an overwhelming sense of doom and certainty, as if the characters are pieces on a chess table, being moved around by the whim of a cruel and careless God. Carr’s novel is too optimistic, too joyous at times, for that, and so I think he owes more of a debt to Harris than Chandler and Hammett.

The Alienist is a graphic, bloody book–I always have to skip over that initial discovery of the child prostitute, or at least skim by it–and that’s perhaps due to those things being in vogue at the time Carr was writing. I think I first encountered The Alienist in the late 90s, when I knew names like H.H. Holmes and Albert Fish and didn’t need much encouragement to read a book whose concept was “serial killer period piece.” Reading through it again, smiling with recognition at the places Carr mentions that are now familiar to me–Washington Square, Delancy Street, Bleeker–I found myself realizing that the boy who fell in love with detective fiction also dreamed of moving to New York at the same time. I don’t know if it was The Alienist that planted that seed, but I can still see myself racing alongside Moore, Kreizler, Cyrus, Sarah, the Issacsons, and Stevie the Stevepipe, joined together in a titanic battle against the forces of darkness.

The forces of darkness. Those loom large throughout detective fiction, just as Thomas Harris and Arthur Conan Doyle are intertwined throughout The Alienist. Here, the mystery is nothing less than a confrontation with evil itself. If the blossoming 20th century was to be the American Century and the detective story one of its greatest cultural contributions, then so was the serial killer as actual terror and, you know, bogeyman. But if the detective is designed in response to these forces of darkness, this confrontation with evil, then what? All of Sam Spade’s wisecracks and Philip Marlowe’s self-awareness would just crumble if they saw that sight on the Williamsburg Bridge. (It’s telling that Marlowe is so disgusted by contemporary crime at the end of Altman’s Long Goodbye that he guns down a man–a friend!–in cold blood, and a similar fate meets Hercule Poirot in his final novel.)

Carr’s innovation in The Alienist is to give a twentieth century problem a twentieth century solution. Much like how The Right Stuff chronicles the move from the cowboy antics of test pilots to the collaborations of the Mercury Seven and blossoming Apollo program, Carr posits that in the age of the serial killer, it must not be one man headed down those mean streets, but men (and women). That motivational catchphrase “teamwork” is what solves the crime in The Alienist–not just the logic and reason of Kreizler, but the investigative skills and forensic gifts of the Issacsons and Sara, the pluck and ingenuity of Stevie, the brute force of Cyrus, and, well, did anyone ever sum up “the game is afoot” better than Theodore Roosevelt?

Yet it remains a team of outsiders, from the Jewish Issacsons to the female Sara to the distrusted, honest Roosevelt and even Kreizler, with his crazy ideas about psychology and childhood trauma. For all the innovations found within the pages of The Alienist, even Carr realizes that some things endure no matter what the age.


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