Surrender, New York. (2016)
By Caleb Carr.
Penguin Random House, 624 pages.
There’s no reason to mince words: Surrender, New York is a failed novel—at least in the non-proofed advance copy I read. It won't happen, but Penguin ought to delay release of this book, assign a stern developmental editor, and advise author Caleb Carr to excise a few hundred pages and rework some head-scratching and totally unbelievable detail. It pains me to say this, because two of Carr’s previous novels—The Alienist (1994) and The Angel of Darkness (1997)—are high on my list of thrilling reads.
Both of the above featured the character and/or theories of Laszlo Kreizler, the namesake alienist of the 1994 novel. During the late 19th century that antiquated term referenced today’s fields of psychology and psychiatry, which were in their infancy and seemed to the uninformed as mysterious as spiritualism. Carr fashioned Kreizler as a hybrid of criminal profile pioneers such as Cesare Lombroso (1835-1903) and Alphonse Bertillon (1853-1914), with what I suspect was a bit of early Freud tossed into the mix—perfect for solving two Gilded Age serial killer cases.
Surrender, New York is the name of a fictional town set in equally fictional Burgoyne County, but in contemporary times. You can, if you wish, try to play the game of what the stand-in town might be, but all you need to know is that it’s three-hours north of New York City, within a reasonable driving distance of Albany, and that Route 22 runs nearby. Route 22 factors into the story as it is the artery that connects the Big Apple to rural New York, where local officials seek to track down a serial killer responsible for the deaths of several young people. A few local cops are perturbed by the direction of the investigation and call upon the services of criminal profilers L. Trajan Jones and Michael Li to assist them. The duo quickly surmises that the “murders” are, in fact, suicides, a theory that infuriates officials in Albany. Why? Because Jones and Li detect that the victims were “throwaway children” abandoned by their parents, but who seemingly made their way down Route 22 to the Big Apple and acquired the trappings of money. We are led to believe that New York’s ambitious governor, state attorney, and other Albany bigwigs would prefer a serial killer to an abandoned children scandal that might touch the rich and powerful. Find that hard to swallow? It is.
LT and Mike have to tread lightly, though, as they have no official standing and are, themselves, exiles in Surrender, having once been stars within the New York City Police Department before they got too close to blowing the whistle on powerful people involved in the man/boy sex trade. They rebounded by retreating to Surrender, where the Jones family has long been viewed as the local patriciate and LT’s aunt has a farm where he can den his cheetah—yes, we’re straying upon more illogical ground—and where the good “doctors,” who have Ph.D.s in psychology, can support themselves by teaching online courses for SUNY Albany on the “context” theories of—you guessed it—Laszlo Kreizler. Why Carr freezes the evolution of criminal psychology in the late 19th century is anyone’s guess, but fine. But I must ask this question: How much money does Carr suppose one makes teaching online? Let me answer that. It depends upon the number of students and the institution, but it’s in the $1,500 to $5,000 range—surely not enough to outfit the lab these boys have in the barn. Did I mention it’s filled with high tech links built into the converted hulk of a vintage Junker aircraft? Or that student protocol is to address an instructor as “professor” rather than “doctor,” and that both Jones and Li would have been fired in a New York minute if they humiliated their young charges with the language used in Carr’s novel.
Speaking of language, our highly educated doctors both speak as if they are escapees from a Mickey Spillane first draft, with a bit of teenage bad boy mixed in. We do get some profiler deductive reasoning, but mostly it’s a procession of “F” bombs and rants on why forensics is garbage science. In fact, the book’s number one takeaway is that Carr hates, really hates, CSI in all its iterations. Jones and Li would also be arrested for child endangerment if they, as in this novel, took in a 15-year-old assistant, allowed him to view an autopsy, and constantly put him in harm’s way. I suppose it’s pointless to suggest that this character, Lucas Kurtis, always speaks the way that 15-year-olds speak only in the locker room, yet somehow is capable of leaps of reason that elude most adults. Should I even dwell on the point that he too is a throwaway child living with his blind sister Ambyr? Or that Ambyr is gorgeous and that she and the one-legged cancer survivor LT develop a “thing?” Carr’s descriptions of their intimacies are embarrassing—not because they are salacious, but because they are puerile. Should we get into the ethnic slurs good naturedly exchanged between LT and his Chinese-American partner? (Is this banter, or just an excuse for Carr to be a bit naughty?)
Let’s not; it’s simply not worth it. Had I not committed myself to writing a preview, I would have ditched 150 pages in. The solving of the central mystery isn’t particularly clever or complex; in fact, I had most of it puzzled out before I hit page 400—complete with exposing the red herrings. Here’s the unassailable fact for which you’ll need neither psychology nor forensics to uncover: even good writers are capable of writing junk. Shame on Penguin Random House for allowing this one to get past the first read-through.