Caleb Carr is probably best known for his historical crime fiction debut The Alienist. That book, and its sequel, Angel of Darkness, set around turn of the century New York City and, later upstate New York, explored the early days of criminal psychology. They had an old fashioned feel which, given their setting, was entirely appropriate and brought the period and locations to life. Carr’s latest book, Surrender, New York is contemporary, also set in upstate New York and ties back loosely to these earlier works through the investigative legacy of their main character, Dr Kreizler.
Dr Trajan “LT” Jones is a criminal psychologist. Run out of New York City after showing up the local investigators, Trajan and his colleague Michael Li have set up in Shiloh, his old family estate outside of the little town of Surrender, in upstate New York. Jones and Li now lecture online to students across the country. They are called in to consult by the local sheriff when a teenage girl is found dead in suspicious circumstances, and soon find themselves, again, falling foul of the State investigators who want to see their case wrapped up quickly.
Jones and Li, following in the steps of their guiding light Kreizler, are experts in criminal psychology, a field of study which they (and Carr) are at pains to make clear to readers and their students is different of modern day forensics and profiling. According to Jones (and Carr) CSI-style forensics and Silence of the Lambs-style profiling, together with a politicised justice system are pretty much the root of all evil in America. This argument is put repeatedly and often throughout the book. Carr clearly wants this book to be an indictment of the current system and there is plenty of polemic and examples of venal, self-serving law enforcers, to drive the message home. But Jones and Li do not necessarily come across and the world’s greatest detectives either, making plenty of mistakes and false assumptions along their way to what turns out in the end to be a fairly obvious solution.
But the constant and obvious polemic is not the most disappointing element of Surrender. The old fashioned style that Carr adopts, which might have been appropriate for a turn of the century story does nothing for a contemporary setting, no matter how much all of the characters swear. And the pacing of the plot slows matters down even further. Each time the story gains a little bit of momentum, Carr manages to slow it back down again to a crawl with lengthy descriptive passages, interminable conversations where his main characters go over their methods or drawn out action scenes. And the constant foreshadowing of dangers or problems to come only seems to heighten the fact that the actual action takes way too long to arrive.
Surrender, New York deals with some fascinating and disturbing contemporary issues. In particular, the phenomenon of ‘throwaway children’ – children who have been abandoned by parents who find they cannot or are not willing to look after them. But the subject matter is not served well by the style or the polemical nature of the narrative. Most readers are likely to have switched off well before the crux of these issues is reached in what turns out to be an underwhelming “well you’ve got me, I might as well confess everything to you even though you are probably recording me because this is the twenty first century” finale.