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Friday, October 10, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Caleb Carr Serves Up Meaty Melodrama, This Time With An Eccentric Pygmy

Special To The Seattle Times

"The Alienist" was not Caleb Carr's first novel, but it was his first big success.

Carr was in town yesterday promoting his new book, "The Angel of Darkness," (Random House, $23.95), which is near the top of the best seller lists. It's a meaty, 600-page story that reprises the winning combination of "The Alienist" - examinations of modern ideas (such as feminism and psychiatry) merged with an old-fashioned, melodramatic adventure tale.

Though it can easily be read on its own, the new book reintroduces many of the characters from "The Alienist." Besides Doctor Laszlo Kreizler, these include private detective Sara Howard; reporter John Moore; a brotherly team of detective sergeants, Lucius and Marcus Isaacson; and the doctor's assistants, Cyrus Montrose and Stevie Taggert.

"The characters in the first book," Carr says, "are like people you meet at a party, and that you might be intrigued by. In the new book, you get to live with them a little bit."

Unlike "The Alienist," which was narrated by the drunken and somewhat dense reporter Moore, "The Angel of Darkness" is told by Stevie, a feisty teen-ager and reformed street brawler who has been on his own since the age of 8.

"The intention was always to write a series of books in which each character gets to narrate," Carr says. "Stevie is a little closer to me personally, in terms of growing up in a lot of different worlds, a lot of different levels of society, in New York." (Carr, a New York native, had a rough childhood and an uncertain early life with his bohemian parents.)

The new book begins relatively simply. The year is 1897. A baby has been kidnaped, and detective Howard enlists the doctor and his assistants to help. The tale soon grows complex. The baby is the daughter of a Spanish diplomat and since America is on the verge of war with Spain, the affair must be handled delicately. Furthermore, the sleuths learn that the kidnapper, Libby Hatch, has already killed more than one child. She is, apparently, enslaved by psychological demons that force her to simultaneously love and hate children - even her own.

This notion of potential ambiguity in the maternal relationship is one of the most powerful themes in the book. "People want to believe that there is one relationship in this world that is free from central illness and corruption," Carr says flatly and a little sadly. "In fact, there isn't."

Hatch is a worthy match for Kreizler. The doctor is endlessly sympathetic but no pushover. Hatch, meanwhile, is terrifyingly shrewd and calculating; the complex reasons she kidnaps and kills are not easily fathomed.

On one level, the book explores such weighty matters and also looks at a number of other themes: the budding science of criminal forensics, for instance, and the entanglements of class and gender. On another level, it's just a good story set in the rich context of 1897 New York. We encounter cocaine-crazed gangs of hoodlums, architectural details, sumptuous meals at restaurants like Delmonico's, and the ornate gambling and health spas of Saratoga.

Carr says he didn't "shop" for a time period until he knew his themes and plots. "I always get the story first, and the historical details come second. Any good story will work in almost any time period."

Many real-life characters make short but vivid appearances, including Clarence Darrow, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Teddy Roosevelt. Darrow brilliantly mounts a courtroom defense of Hatch; Roosevelt charges in at the last moment to lend a hand in a rousing street fight.

There are also some very strange touches, which give the book an air of genuine melodrama - for instance, the mysterious, death-dealing Filipino pygmy who first fights and then joins the intrepid Kreizler.

Carr acknowledges that the pygmy is somewhat Sherlock Holmesian in nature. "He's a little tip of the hat to Conan Doyle and the pygmy in `The Sign of Four,' " he says.

"A lot of people have told me they consider the pygmy an absurd character. That's one reason I love this time period. What looks absurd to us now wasn't absurd then - eccentricity was really appreciated and cultivated."

Carr is a frequent contributor to various political and historical journals. His interest in history "came out of myths and legends when I was a boy," he says. "That developed into a love of boy-adventure stories.

"My first really passionate interest in history was in the great explorers, which led into military history. Military history for me is really nothing but great adventure stories.

"And it was always about personalities. In a world in which I didn't have a lot of adult male figures that I really looked up to - the world of my parents was morally ambiguous, to say the least - history provided me with role models."

The progression from an interest in personalities to psychology was logical, Carr adds. "The question becomes, How did someone get to be a certain way, and how did that influence actions in public life?"

Carr clearly has little patience with Hollywood, and says that if he is asked to work on the troubled script for the film version of "The Alienist" he would need the freedom to direct as well.

Between the writing of "The Alienist" and "The Angel of Darkness," the writer joined up with director Joe Dante in a pilot for an ill-fated TV pilot - a "futuristic space opera" that was never aired.

Meanwhile, he says, he's starting to think about new projects. "I don't like to do two things in a row. If I do another book instead of a movie next, it won't be in this series."

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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