Surrender, New York: A Warning

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This new novel has everything going for it.

Its author is Caleb Carr, whose first book, “The Alienist,” was a thrilling whodunit set in 1896 New York City, when police were beginning to use scientific evidence to solve crimes. The book sold more than 1.5 million copies, and the story was optioned for $500,000 by Hollywood; a television series is in the works.

“Surrender, New York,” Carr’s third book, is narrated by a modern-day former detective who studied the methods of the detective in the first book and who has come to believe forensics are overused. For this, he has left the NYPD and settled in Surrender, NY where he is asked to help unravel the mysteries of several young people’s deaths.

A Wall Street Journal review calls the book a “page-turning thriller” and concludes with this: “Mr. Carr conjures with admirable ease and verve all manner of vivid characters . . . . Skills and thrills are more abundant than plausibility. For maximum enjoyment: surrender, reader.”

A New York Times review says Carr “has written an addictive contemporary crime procedural stuffed with observations on the manipulations of science and the particular societal ills of the moment. Call it a mystery with multiple messages.”

Based on reviews like these and my own enjoyment of “The Alienist,” I bought the new book.

What a mistake.
The Reading Experience

Last night I began reading “Surrender, New York.” Within a couple pages, I was wondering what all the fuss was about.

Here’s an early sentence:

Mine had been one of the most outspoken voices attempting to expose those
weaknesses; and because my work (and the methods that underlay them)
had led to a series of widely publicized conflicts with the NYPD’s crime lab
that had ultimately made me persona non grata in the metropolis where I
was born, I was not altogether surprised but was entirely grateful, when
SUNY-Albany offered me the chance to help structure their balancing
course of study.

I underlined the pronoun and possessive here because I couldn’t figure out their antecedents.

Here’s the next sentence:

Partnering with my closest co-worker in New York, Mike Li — an expert in
trace and DNA evidence who had spent years vociferously pointing out the
widespread and often fatal flaws that marred the gathering, handling, and
courtroom use of such evidence — I gladly accepted the university’s offer,
provided Mike’s and my own courses could be taught online.

A little further on came this extended bit, with some very labored dialogue.

. . . . “Pete Steinbrenner’s on his way up.” I could hear Mike cut short his
presentation for a seminar as I added flatly, “Looks like someone’s been
murdered.”

In the time it took Pete to park his patrol car beside one of the milking
barns below the hangar, Mike shot out of the plane and down the steel
steps, his mood characteristically brightened. “Excellent,” he called as
he joined me, his eyes — narrowed by years of examining often
microscopic pieces of evidence — widened with enthusiasm. “Should
I cancel my next class?” He looked up at me eagerly (Mike stands
about five foot six, even when excited, while I, despite my usual
stooped posture, am a good half-foot taller), and grinned almost
fiendishly as he accepted a cigarette from the pack I held out for him.

“Not yet,” I said, pulling a pocket watch from my vest and popping is
open. “You’ve got a good twenty minutes — let’s hear him out, first.”

“Ah,” Mike noised in disappointment. “How did I know you were going
to say that, gweilo?” (When irritated with me, it was Mike’s custom to
to use the Cantonese word for “white devil.”)

“Easy there, Yellow Peril,” I answered, replacing my watch, producing
a Zippo lighter, and offering its flame to my partner.

“Damn it, L.T.,” Mike replied. “I’ve told you, ‘Yellow Peril’ refers to the
Japs — and the Chinese have a lot more fucking reasons to hate them than
you do. So dibs.”

I turned to him, amused. “‘Dibs’?”

“On hating the Japanese,” Mike said, with a wave of his cigarette.

“Ah,” I replied with a nod; but I could not help another chuckle. “‘Dibs,'”
I murmured. “You often have a whimsical way of putting things, Michael…”

If you can read this sort of prose without gagging, well, God bless you.

In general, the first chapter of a novel is the best one. The writer returns to it again and again, rereading the work in progress, starting with the first chapter as each additional chunk of writing is added.

The first chapter draws in the reader. It sets up the story questions that keep the reader wanting to learn more.

This first chapter is badly written. It suggests that the whole book — all 598 pages of it — needs a complete rewrite. Unfortunately, literary agents and publishers may not want to tell a successful author that he has turned in a very flawed manuscript.

I’m perfectly happy to read a long novel as long as it is well written and tells a good story. But five pages of “Surrender, New York” are about all I can take.

Other Reviews

Today I learned that not all the critics were wild for this novel. From a couple of skeptical reviews:

I blame Carr’s narrator. Dr. Trajan Jones, a profiler walking in the alienist’s
intellectual footsteps, is unlikable (not in any good way). His dialogue is pedantic
and his point of view is thick with righteous indignation. Even his banter with his
partner, Dr. Michael Li, frequently falls flat.

Carole E. Barrowman
Minneapolis StarTribune

Carr’s writing can arouse both admiration and disappointment. His descriptive
passages can be elegant and informative but they go on endlessly, maddeningly; details can strengthen a novel but an avalanche of them can kill momentum. . . . All in all, despite some interesting characters and thoughts on social issues, “Surrender, New York” became for this reader an agonizing ordeal.

Patrick Anderson
Washington Post

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