Zaleski: The dark side and a sequel to a classic
With summer a memory and the routine of autumn in place, it's time to relax and read a good book. Here are a couple that might not appeal to everyone, but are worth a look.
"The Alienist" by Caleb Carr (Bantam Books 1998) has been made into a television series, but if the program is anything like the book, don't watch it in the dark.
Carr's historical novelization of the search for a serial torturer and killer of children in 1896 New York City is deeply disturbing. Yet, it's a compelling read that pulls the reader into a mystery that is entangled in the emerging disciplines of psychology and psychiatry, the horrific conditions in immigrant neighborhoods in the city, and the political and moral corruption of the police.
The hunters are led by an "alienist," which was the term at the time for experts who studied mental pathologies. The team is secretly sanctioned by Theodore Roosevelt, who was New York City police commissioner at the time of the setting of the novel. Roosevelt's involvement is fictionalized, but convincing. His portrayal is spot on with the larger-than-life character he was.
Descriptions of the manner in which the killer dispatched children who were in the seedy sex trade are not for the faint of heart. The piecing together of the motivation of the suspected killer, and how he (or she) became a killer, is a psychological thriller rife with detail that illuminates the myths and bigotries of the Gilded Age. Baffled at every turn, the alienist and his unlikely allies extend their search as far as Dakota Territory, eventually fitting parts of the puzzle into an emerging picture that is harrowing and fascinating.
The terror of the story and of the risks taken by the investigators are framed in a marvelously dark portrait of the era. The characters—gangsters, politicians, police thugs—stir the story into a weird and toxic stew. In the end, it's satisfying—but not fully.
It's a good read. It's an unforgettable plunge into the dark side. Be warned.
"The Massacre of Mankind" by Stephen Baxter (Crown Publishing 2017) is a sequel to H.G. Wells' iconic science fiction work, "The War of the Worlds." Sanctioned by the Wells estate, the new book is structured and written in the style of the original. It works on most levels, but for ardent fans of the 1897 classic, the sequel might not work at all.
In the sequel, the Martians, having been beaten by microbial infection in their first invasion of Earth, return with a vengeance. They have adapted their bodies and machines and are better equipped to conquer the planet. The story is primarily about how the new attacks are beaten back.
Baxter is true to Wells' vision and tone. It extrapolates a different post-1900 European history that was changed by the first invasion from Mars. In this version, the Titanic never hit an iceberg; World War I did not drag in the Americans; Germany dominates Europe in a kind of cold war that is moderated by the Martian occupation; the Lusitania was never torpedoed; Zeppelin airships dominate the skies.
It's all a tad improbable, especially a cosmic conflict involving Venus and Jupiter. Enough said about that.
If you liked Wells' "War of the Worlds," the sequel might spark your interest. If you revere the old book, the new one might offend you. Give it a look.
Zaleski retired in February after nearly 30 years as The Forum’s editorial page editor. Contact him at email@example.com