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The Angel of Darkness
By Caleb Carr

Ballantine Books, 1997, 752 pages

Reviewed by J. Ashley (3/99)

I picked up this book reluctantly because of all the hype surrounding Caleb Carr's first book, The Alienist, and hype turns me off faster than anything else. But when I finally cracked the pages, I realized why Carr makes the bestseller lists. I feared an unpleasant, dull, overly long book, but what I got was a darned good read.

The Angel of Darkness takes place in New York City in 1897, a year or two after the close of the first novel. It is told in the point of view of Stevie Taggart, a former street urchin, and the story begins when Sara Howard, who has begun a detective agency for women, needs help finding the kidnapper of the daughter of a Spanish ambassador's wife. The simple kidnaping case drags Stevie, John Moore (the narrator of The Alienist), Dr. Kreizler, the Isaacson brothers (two police detectives on the cutting edge of fingerprinting, ballistics, and other aspects of forensic detection) into the search for a bizarre serial killer, a woman bent on nurturing, then murdering children.

The hunt takes them to upstate New York, where they uncover more murders and the woman's strange past. Added to this is the fact that Dr. Kreizler's institute for children is under investigation because one of the children within had committed suicide. Also, Stevie's first love, a prostitute named Kat, becomes mixed up in the affair, causing him anguish and heartbreak.

The book moves swiftly, and pages turn before you know it. The main characters are lively and energetic, and their energy rubs off on the rest of the story, which is mainly a police procedural, a courtroom drama, and a frantic investigation all rolled into one.

There were flaws in the book--the dialog tends to go on and on, and when they're deep in discussion, the characters start sounding the same. Also, we often lose Stevie's unique voice; he switches from street slang to sounding as though he has a graduate degree in English and back again. And Stevie, thirteen, can't always go into to the same places the others go, so there are passages of people explaining things to him, or devices like Stevie eavesdropping so the reader doesn't miss the main action. Another device--Moore at times gets incredibly dense and keeps asking for explanations, thus enabling the reader to get them too. And I couldn't figure out why the author threw in a pigmy from the Philippines (reminiscent of Conan Doyle's The Sign of Four), Teddy Roosevelt and the US Navy, and one of the Vanderbilts (whose behavior toward the murderer was never really explained). And the ending didn't really satisfy me.

In another book, those things might drag down the story. Caleb Carr, however, is so good a storyteller, that I let such criticisms go by. If you over-analyze this story, you may wonder why it gets rave reviews. If you just enjoy it, you'll understand.

You don't have to read The Alienist first to read The Angel of Darkness. Carr draws the characters well enough that you have all the information you need. However, he does give away some of the action of The Alienist, so if this bothers you, read the first book first.

If you're afraid of flying, read this on your next flight, and you won't even notice you're in the air.

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