Investigating the past

Upon publication of his Sherlock Holmes imitation, Caleb Carr discusses the miserable Beatnik upbringing that would come to shape his writing.

By BEN NAPARSTEK
October 1, 2005 02:48

 
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The Italian Secretary: A Further Adventure of Sherlock Holmes By Caleb Carr Avalon 266pp., $23.95 As a child, Caleb Carr promised himself that he'd never become a writer. Although his father, Lucien, was a seminal figure of the Beat generation, and Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs were habitues of the turbulent family home, they were far from role models. "They were noisy drunks that were a disruption," Carr says. "They made me determined never to be a fiction writer." Although Carr broke his pledge, his work couldn't be further removed from the Beats. From his formal background as a military historian to his four intricately plotted mystery novels, Carr's writing could even be regarded as a rejection of the blind emotion promoted by his father's crowd. Carr's latest book, The Italian Secretary, is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, set in the closing years of the Victorian era and revolving around the murder of David Rizzio, a real-life intimate of Mary Queen of Scots. Carr began The Italian Secretary after he was approached by the Arthur Conan Doyle estate to contribute a short story to an anthology of Holmes imitations. When his submission grew to novel length, he decided to publish it as a standalone book. He says he's surprised by his decision to hew to another writer's formula. "I don't generally like the practice of authors using other people's creations," he says. "I'd never thought of such a project before." The Italian Secretary is a departure from Carr's breakout 1994 novel The Alienist and its sequel The Angel of Darkness - dark-edged whodunnits of fin de siecle New York, featuring pioneering forensic psychologist Lazlo Kreizler. Whereas Kreizler anticipates 20th-century developments in criminal psychology, Holmes is the epitome of the Victorian-era detective, unscrambling mysteries solely by applying his powers of deduction to the concrete facts. "Kreizler was invented quite consciously as a character who could solve all the crimes Holmes couldn't, in which there's little or no physical evidence and no apparent motive - the product of aberrant criminal psychology," Carr says. Carr is one of a number of noted authors who have breathed new life into Holmes. In the past year, US novelists Michael Chabon, Mitch Cullin and Laurie King have contributed new chapters to the Holmes canon. Carr says that the post-September 11 revival of Holmes - whom Conan Doyle called "the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen" - suggests a heightened concern about the rule of reason, with the threat to rational order presented by fundamentalism. Conan Doyle's Holmes mysteries have inspired more than 4,000 imitative works - reportedly more than any other fictional creation. Carr attributes Holmes's vigorous afterlife to the unique form of secular rationalism that his character embodies. "I put his endurance down to a very strict sense of basic justice that's not evangelical. He doesn't force it on anyone, but demonstrates it in ways that aren't spiritually oppressive." The Italian Secretary includes an afterword by a representative of the Conan Doyle estate, expressing his hope that Carr will bring Kreizler and Holmes together in a future novel. But Carr isn't enthusiastic about the idea. "That's not my fictional style. I'm known for incorporating real historical characters into my books. It's far more likely that Conan Doyle, rather than Holmes, would appear in a Kreizler tale." CARR IS better placed than most to write about violence. Although refusing to discuss specifics, he makes it clear that he and his siblings experienced regular physical abuse at the hands of their alcoholic, disciplinarian father. He says he was an angry child, indignant at the "abusive set of circumstances that I didn't have the power to change, and about which I wasn't allowed to complain." After his parents divorced, when Carr was eight, Kerouac proposed to his mother. She snubbed his offer, marrying a failed, alcoholic writer instead. Carr and his siblings found a haven in their grandparents' 11-hectare estate in rural New York, where they spent most summers. "When the adults weren't around, it was a place of great solace," he says. "When they were, it was a place of great exploration because being in the house too much wasn't an option." When, seven years ago, Carr learned the neighboring property was for sale, he bought it for almost twice its market value and moved into the ramshackle farmhouse. He was searching for solitude, but he also felt New York City had changed for the worse. "It's not the city it was 20 or even 10 years ago. It's become a sanitized, theme-park version of itself," he says. Carr, who has long been single, admits to being inept at forming relationships. "People who have known violence in childhood have a great deal of trouble trusting or achieving intimacy. When you add bad selections into the mix, you lose the taste for even trying," he says. At the age of 19, Carr's father fatally stabbed an associate of the Beat circle, whom he claimed was making a homosexual advance. He was sentenced to two years in jail. Kerouac, who helped him hide the knife and the victim's glasses, was convicted as an accomplice and jailed for several days. Caleb Carr was 18 when he learned of his father's crime. "I found it shocking, but not exactly surprising," he says. Although Carr maintained contact with his father throughout his adult years, their relationship was fraught with tension. "He was enormously threatened by me, from the time I was a child - threatened by my tendency to speak what I perceived," he says. "Alcoholics don't tend to like children like that." Lucien Carr, who died in February, initially welcomed his son's success as a writer. "He, like all his generation, enjoyed anything that brought him back into the spotlight, even indirectly. But when uncomfortable subjects began appearing in interviews he became upset." Carr isn't one to conceal his anger. When his 2002 polemic The Lessons of Terror was panned by critics, he posted a five-star self-review on Amazon.com, hitting back at his detractors. The main target of his screed appeared to be female reviewers, "who somehow think they have been suddenly, magically endowed with a thorough knowledge of military history and are therefore just as qualified to review books on that subject as they are to chatter about bad women's fiction." Yet it was a male reviewer who called Carr's quixotic thesis - namely, that military strategies targeting civilians usually fail - "as slippery and elusive as a handful of live minnows." Although his Kreizler novels won plaudits for their atmospheric evocations of old New York, Carr doesn't want to be seen as a literary writer. "A modern 'serious literary figure' is a person whose narcissism knows no bounds and who never tires of retelling his or her own personal story in only slightly varied forms," he says. "There are exceptions, but they only prove the rule." His antipathy extends to practitioners of what he calls the "Gore Vidal approach to historical fiction. If you're going to use real historical characters, you should be true to what they were, not use them as straw men, changing their essential natures to meet your own political beliefs." Carr, who describes his worldview as gloomy, acknowledges the irony that he lives on a farm estate called Misery Mountain. "We're heading into an era when much of the progress that was made over the past two centuries is under attack - progress in social policy, in environmental policy, education, hygiene, medicine, name the area. Yet most people claim this is a more spiritual age. That probably is the problem. Faith leads to wars and the erosion of civilization far more quickly than reason."

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