The Angel of Darkness by Caleb Carr Thursday, Oct 27 2011 

In this sequel to The Alienist, controversial psychiatrist Dr. Laszlo Kreizler and his eclectic team of investigators find themselves once again at the center of a complicated, disturbing case. The story begins when a Spanish diplomat’s baby daughter is kidnapped. The child’s mother approaches former police department secretary Sara Howard, now a private investigator, for help after her husband refuses to do anything to get their child back. Although tensions between the U.S. and Spain are blamed at first, the team soon learns that the kidnapper is Libby Hatch, a nurse with a troubling track record of babies dying under her care. As Dr. Kreizler and the others delve further into Libby’s life, both past and present, they find out they are up against a manipulative woman who has caused more destruction than they could have imagined.

While I’d say that The Angel of Darkness is just as good as The Alienist, this book has a very different feel to it, despite having many of the same characters. While The Alienist was more of a mystery, with the investigators trying both to identify and to stop the killer, The Angel of Darkness is more of a thriller. The reader finds out in the first chapter who the main villain is and what has become of her, and the rest of the novel reveals what is so awful about Libby Hatch, and why the team’s experience with her still haunts them. The other big difference is the novel’s narrator. The Alienist is told from the perspective of educated, well-to-do journalist John Moore, but The Angel of Darkness is narrated by Stevie Taggert, a former petty thief who began working for Dr. Kreizler after Kreizler saved him from a brutal life in prison. Stevie tells the story with a less refined tone, and he presents what is practically an insider’s perspective on the New York criminal underworld, having spent his childhood as a part of it. As a result, the dangers of dealing with the gangs and violence of that world felt much closer and much more real in The Angel of Darkness. While Carr certainly did not hold back from describing them in The Alienist, there was always a certain distance from all of it when an outsider was telling the story.

I think the most notable thing about The Angel of Darkness, though, is Libby Hatch herself, who is a surprisingly complicated villain for a thriller.  As vicious and deceitful as Libby can be, there is something desperate and tragic about her as well. There are so many sides to her personality—some real, some perhaps entirely fabricated—that she is not only a fascinating psychological study for Dr. Kreizler, but a challenge for the investigators that their target in The Alienist never presented to the same degree. I found myself wondering about Libby Hatch whether she could have turned out differently in a society that had different expectations of women, and I even came close to pitying her a few times, despite her shocking crimes—but Carr keeps Libby sneaky and evil enough to stop the reader from feeling much sympathy for her.

Like The Alienist, The Angel of Darkness presents appealing characters (though I thought Sara Howard was still a little too close to being a mere caricature of a late 19th century feminist), and an exciting, suspenseful story. Both books offer an interesting peek into a very different era of New York City history, which has been, for me, one of the most enjoyable parts of reading them. Caleb Carr has not written a book about Laszlo Kreizler and his associates since The Angel of Darkness in 1997, but I hope perhaps he will write at least one more someday. I would certainly welcome such a book, and I’m sure many other mystery and thriller fans would as well.

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Vaclav & Lena by Haley Tanner Thursday, Oct 13 2011 

The description of Haley Tanner’s debut novel, Vaclav & Lena, which I came across a few months before the book was published in May, made it sound like a moving, charming, magical read. So, I added it to my (very long) want-to-read list right away and recently borrowed it (after waiting several weeks for it to become available) from the local library. I was excited to lose myself in this tale of two Russian émigrés in Brooklyn, the love and secrets they shared as children, their dreams of a Coney Island magic show, and what would happen when reality disrupted their slightly fantastical plans.

Unfortunately, though Vaclav & Lena may have proved a moving, charming, magical read for many others, it didn’t do so for me. While there are some adorable and some very poignant scenes in the book, I found it surprisingly shallow and uneven. Vaclav and Lena are both somewhat interesting characters, but I did not feel like I got to know them very well. While their love for each other—especially Vaclav’s love for Lena—is stated frequently, there is never much said about what they love about each other, as well as little about their relationship beyond their mutual interest in magic.  This shared fascination is cute, but Haley Tanner does not follow through on it well. She goes into excruciating detail early on in the novel about Vaclav’s dreams of being a famous magician and Lena being his “lovely assistant,” then fails to tie it together with the end of the novel. I would have preferred that she spend more time on Vaclav and Lena’s relationship beyond the magic act, especially if that would have meant a deeper exploration of the characters’ time apart and how it affected their feelings toward each other.

I am no expert on the Russian immigrant experience in the late 20th century, but some readers who did not enjoy Vaclav & Lena have commented that Tanner’s tale of such an experience is full of both stereotypes and anachronisms. From the little I do know about Russian communities like Brighton Beach, I would say that this is probably a fair assessment. The little effort that is made to move beyond the negative stereotypes of Russian immigrants is too late and too much of a deus ex machina to be at all believable. It also seemed to me that Tanner could not decide whether the novel took place in the early 2000s or around the time of the fall of the Soviet Union—another issue that at least one negative review I read pointed out. Thanks to all these factors, the setting of the novel ends up an ahistorical place that seems only vaguely inspired by the Russian community in Brooklyn, rather than a realistic portrayal of the neighborhood.

My biggest gripes with Vaclav & Lena, however, are the tone and the author’s apparent inability to decide what her novel is really about. The whimsical tone and the use of present-tense language are fine when the protagonists are wide-eyed children taking in Coney Island and dreaming of stardom on the boardwalk; at these points, the novel is indeed as charming as I’d hoped it would be. However, the whimsy of Tanner’s writing becomes cloying and disconcerting as the material becomes more serious. More irritating, though, is how the novel abruptly becomes more about Lena’s past and her desire to find out about her parents than it does about her relationship with Vaclav. The love story that is supposedly the core of the novel is not tied in well with Lena’s quest for the truth, resulting in somewhat messy storytelling that failed to engage me once I was through the first third or so of the novel.

I realize that I may be one of only a few people who came away less than impressed with Vaclav & Lena. I have to admit, it made me a little sad to write this review, as I had very much wanted to like this book after looking forward to it for quite some time. I probably expected too much from this novel after hearing what it was about and how good it was. I suppose one could say that I’m being too fussy now, but I like to be honest when I assess anything I have read, and the truth is that Vaclav & Lena was a disappointment. The magic of the novel’s beginning simply got used up way too fast.