Caleb Carr Lives in a Very Dark Place
On Growing Up with the Beats, Living on Mount Misery, and Vanishing Children
In 1960, the writer and military historian Caleb Carr was five years old and living with his family in a small house on Horatio Street in Greenwich Village. His journalist father Lucien Carr would have loud, wild parties with the writers Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, and the poet Allen Ginsberg, the literary trio at the heart of the Beat Generation in the 1950s. Lucien Carr had brought these men together at Columbia University in the 1940s.
The drunken parties would often end in screaming and fighting, with furniture breaking. “I would sit at the top of the stairs, listening,” said Caleb Carr, from his home in upstate New York, “trying to figure it out. What the hell was going on? It never made any sense.”
The Carr household was not a safe place for the three sons. According to Carr, his father was an alcoholic, psychologically abusive to his mother and brothers, often singling out Caleb, the middle son, for physical abuse that continued even after his parents divorced when he was eight.
Three decades later, after a successful career as a military historian, Caleb Carr published his major bestseller The Alienist in 1994. Tapping into a grim worldview arrived at after such a tough childhood, Carr wrote of the criminal profiler Dr. Laszlo Kreizler hunting a serial killer of teen male prostitutes in decadent 1890s Manhattan. The sequel was The Angel of Darkness, where a mother murders her own children.
Now Carr has published his first thriller in 15 years with Surrender, New York, a contemporary story set in the fictional Burgoyne County in upstate New York, full of ominous mountain passes and bankrupt factory towns. Returning to the theme of murdered children, several abandoned teenagers have turned up dead and a serial killer may be at work. Dr. Trajan Jones, a bitingly cynical profiler and a 21st century disciple of Kreizler, has been called in to consult on the case.
“I had planned to write a simple book about these dead children,” said the 61-year-old Carr in a telephone interview from his stone house on the top of Misery Mountain, in Renssalaer County, New York. “I was going through these New York State documents, and I kept finding references to ‘throwaway children,’” where in post-2008 Great Recession America, some desperate parents have been abandoning their children and even moving out of state. “It turns out it is a widespread problem. That is the pitfall of research. It takes you places you didn’t plan to go. It stopped being a simple book.”
Dr. Jones is a criminal profiler formally of the NYPD, known by the New York tabloids as “the Sorcerer of Death” for his relentless tracking of murderers and serial killers. Jones was forced out of New York when he and his unorthodox methods ran afoul of the police brass.
Jones sets up shop at his great-great grandfather’s post-Civil War farmhouse in the fictional Shiloh. Working out of a decommissioned World War II-era Junker transport plane, he teaches distance-learning criminal profiling with his old NYPD partner Mike Li.
Like his hero Kreizler, Jones is a battered detective. He’s missing a leg from childhood cancer, exacerbated by a negligent father. His closest friend is a cheetah he rescued from a petting zoo, who lives in her own backyard enclosure.
Local law enforcement asks Jones and Li to consult on the murder of a 15-year-old girl found hung in the filthy and now-abandoned trailer she grew up in. The girl is a throwaway child, abandoned by her parents. The murder scene is too artfully staged. Jones suspects a cover up of some kind. Three more bodies of throwaway children are found, with each having been hung. Were they suicides? Is there a pipeline of teenagers being sent down to New York City for nefarious purposes?
Carr has been coming up to Renssalaer County for five decades, and has lived there full time for 20 years. Three hours up from New York City, it is melancholy place, which makes for a grim setting. “In my earliest memory, the vibrant communities were already on the downslope when I came along,” he said of the dead industry and boarded business districts in the nearby little towns. “Many of them are just ghost towns now.”
The Alienist was full of meticulous research that brought out the smells, the poverty, the excess and corruption of 1890’s New York. Carr’s contemporary research in creating Burgoyne County consists of 50 years of visceral knowledge of the area.
“I spent every childhood summer up here, “ said Carr of his area that is three hours from New York City. I know where to find things. I know where to find the details of Renssalaer and other counties.”
“I also have a lifetime’s accumulation of crazy knowledge,” he said. “I’ve always admired the Junker, one of the most famous airplanes ever built. What if there was a dead Junker in a hanger and somebody breathed new life into it?”
In The Alienist, the corruption reached into the police department and city government. Carr sees the same corruption in the small towns of upstate New York, going all the way to the governor’s office in Albany. There are brutal cops who beat confessions out of subjects and corrupt district attorneys. “I’ve integrated myself into the area,” said Carr. “The deeper you get, the worse the corruption. There is this naked ambition and desire to get to another place.”
In 2005, Carr ran for local office as a favor to a friend. He had no desire to win and didn’t. “I learned how bad things are from the ground up,” said Carr. “I saw people I knew to be criminals being elected. It’s ground-up corruption. That is why Albany is the most corrupt capitol in the country.”
“Local politics is one of the only ways to claw yourself out of the misery that upstate has become,” he said.
The inspiration for Jones as a modern Dr. Kreizler came when Carr taught a graduate course in criminal profiling at John Jay College in Manhattan.
“We tried to solve some high-profile criminal cases using only the techniques that would have been available to Kreizler and his people, to see how far psychology and criminal science had come,” said Carr. “We got very far, as far as those using the huge modern advances in criminal science.”
“The idea that came to me was what if you had a man who used some modern tools, but applied Kreizler’s principles to a modern case? That was the inspiration for Jones.
Early in the thriller, Jones meets a 15-year-old throwaway kid named Lucas and turns him into an apprentice of sorts. As the violence around the murder case ramps up, Jones tries to protect Lucas and his blind sister Ambyr from a mysterious sniper who shoots potential witnesses.
“Jones winds up mentoring Lucas,” said Carr. “Very often, and I include myself in this category, abused boys don’t want children because they don’t want to perpetuate the violence. Mentoring is safer.”
“I was the one my father singled out for abuse,” he said. “I made sure the abuse was going to end with me. It’s always there. For people who have suffered abuse, there is always the danger you’ll fall into the same trap.”
The violence in the Carr family engulfed two generations. Lucien Carr was a fatherless boy in St. Louis in the 1930’s. He was embraced and sexually abused by his Scoutmaster David Kammerer for almost a decade. Kammerer proceeded to stalk Lucien Carr across the Midwest and followed him to New York when he went to Columbia. Lucien killed his abusive stalker in 1944 and dumped the body in the Hudson River. He pled guilty to manslaughter and served two years in prison. The Kammerer murder became the original sin of the Beat Generation.
In 2013, a distorted Hollywood movie of the murder came out called “Kill Your Darlings,” starring Daniel Radcliffe as Allen Ginsberg. The film portrayed Lucien Carr and Kammerer as willing lovers. After the movie came out, Carr gave an extensive, riveting interview to the conservative Daily Caller website, where he argued “my father was a victim of a sustained campaign of criminal child abuse” and bashed the director’s homophilic take on the Carr-Kammerer-Ginsberg relationship.
After prison, Lucien Carr became an editor at UPI, married and had his sons. “Since my father was an abused child,” said Caleb Carr, “the abuse went on and on.”
On YouTube, one can find a six-minute film of Lucien Carr, Ginsberg and Kerouac stumbling down an East Village street around 1959. The film, probably shot by Robert Frank, shows Caleb and his brother Simon being taken into a bar on Third Avenue. The boys are five or six. “You could see how drunk they were,” said Carr.
“We spent half our childhoods in bars,” said Carr. “They’d throw us in a booth with some Cokes and say ‘Watch the television.’ We were always going, ‘Can we go home now?’ It was not fun.
“I was an adolescent in 1960’s and early 1970’s, when the Beats had a revival in popularity. People would say to me, you must have had a glorious childhood with the Beats. How great was it? You’d turn on them and say, ‘It wasn’t so fucking great. It really wasn’t.’”
To escape both his violent and abusive household and the mean streets of the 1960’s Lower East Side where he lived, Carr started haunting libraries and discovering his precocious ability with military history.
Military history offered a different view of violence. “It was finding that there was an definable code of conduct you were supposed to adhere to in the military,” said Carr. “It was a code of honorable conduct.”
Military history didn’t always agree with his teachers. Carr went to Friends Seminary, a Quaker school in Manhattan. “Two teachers encouraged me,” he said. “I tried to explain the military code to other people in school. It did not go over that well. I was dragged in front of the whole administration and told that my interests were ‘disgusting.’ It wasn’t a terribly big deal to have another group of adults disapproving of what I did.”
According to Carr, the administrators at Friends marked him on his school record as “socially undesirable,” which prevented him from going to Harvard. He wound up going to Kenyon College and NYU, finishing up in military and diplomatic history. After college, he worked at the Foreign Affairs Quarterly and wrote a military biography.
After September 11, 2001, Carr published The Lessons of Terror, his 2002 study of war against civilians from the Romans to present. It was a controversial bestseller, earning rave reviews and brickbats. Carr caused additional conflict by going after his critics on Amazon.
In Surrender, New York, Jones rants against the incompetence and bold-face corruption of state crime labs, and the American public’s blind belief in flawed crime-scene investigation[CSI] techniques. “Jones’ rants,” said Carr, “came out of my own interest in criminal investigation. What has happened to criminal science and how did we move so far from the great pioneers of criminal investigation? How did we get to the point where it is one of the most corrupt forms of law enforcement?”
Carr blames the media images of CSI techniques for its undeserved infallible reputation. “In the last 20 years, movies and television have a lot of responsibility for this, and a lot of crime books, as well. There are a lot of airtight criminal cases with eyewitnesses and other evidence, but if there is no high-tech CSI, the jury won’t buy it.”
Jones and his partner Mike Li use Kreizler’s method from The Alienist. “It’s simple dialectical reasoning,” said Carr. “You pose a theory, you pose the opposing theory. You see what you come up with. That’s where Jones and Li’s relationship comes in handy.”
Surrender, New York is full of twists and betrayals. Both Jones and Li carry guns because they don’t trust the cops they are working with as they pursue the truth in the murders that are piling up around them. Jones the master profiler is blind to an obvious suspect with disastrous results and Lucas suffers a tragedy close to home. Rogue officials plot to frame an innocent couple as serial killers for the deaths of the teenagers. Jones finally must trap the corrupt officials before they can get rid of all the witnesses.
To build his new book, Carr followed the masters, “This is an Agatha Christie line, which comes from Dickens, and before him Edgar Allan Poe,” said Carr. “With mysteries, you start with the ending first, then you work your way backwards.”
“The first thing I knew about Jones was that the girl Ambyr was going to be a huge character in the book,” said Carr. “He had to be vulnerable to her. Trajan Jones has a dual personality. Professionally, he has a very tough outside, but there is part of him who is desperately alone and vulnerable. Much of this I know from experience. He did not have the same kind of abuse I had. It is the abuse of neglect and shame that he suffered. His father’s neglect led to him not getting the medical help he needed as a child. Sometimes abuse is not the heavy hand, but the abuse of omission.”
While working on the new novel, Carr returned to his old role a military and political commentator. He wrote a series of op-ed pieces in 2015 and 2016 on the Islamic State, declaring that wiping out ISIS will be a long-term effort.
“It is getting harder and harder to publish op-ed pieces,” said Carr. “People want hysteria now. That’s the market. You can tell people ‘Everything bad that happens is not ISIS,’ but it is cable news that is driving people into a panic. It’s getting harder to find outlets that want rational voices.”
Meanwhile, the Alienist is about to make a comeback. Last year, Mulholland Books announced that it would be publishing two new novels by Carr on Dr. Laszlo Kreizler. “The first book is set in 1915,” said Carr, “and is about the coming of World War I. There’s all the panic about terrorism. There is anti-Germanism and bombings. The characters end up on the Lusitania,” an ocean liner sunk by the German Navy, which helped push the U.S. into the war.
“The second book will be a prequel,” said Carr. “Many readers wanted to know the story of Sara Howard [the heroic police department secretary from The Alienist]. Several members of the group—Kreizler, [the Times reporter John] Moore and Teddy Roosevelt knew each other as young men and during the crisis of Sara’s young life.”
“I am hopeful that since this is a world I have already created,” said Carr. “I won’t have to start writing from the ground up.”
Pictured: Not actually Caleb Carr’s mountain cabin.