Writer Caleb Carr settles his 6’1” frame into a dainty ironwork chair in the courtyard cafe of Manhattan’s Pierpont Morgan Library. The genteel setting may seem odd for discussing a book about the hunt for a cannibalistic, eyeball- stealing serial killer of boy prostitutes. But the carnage in Carr’s new novel, The Alienist, takes place in the rarefied venue of 1896 New York-there’s even a scene set in this same Morgan mansion.
Once he’s seated, the author’s attention becomes riveted on a blond waitress. ”She used to work at a Polish restaurant in my neighborhood. Wow, she’s really come up in the world,” says Carr without a hint of irony, despite the fact the waitress isn’t the only one who’s made great strides lately.
Carr’s meteoric rise began last summer, when producer Scott Rudin (The Firm) read a bootleg copy of The Alienist, decided it ”felt like a big fat movie,” and persuaded Paramount Pictures to pay $500,000 for it. ”I walked around with my head in the clouds for two days,” recalls Carr. An initial $425,000 paperback bid and foreign book advances totaling six figures followed. Not bad for a writer whose previous credits included one lesser- known novel, Casing the Promised Land, and a couple of books and numerous articles on military history, his lifelong passion.
Carr, whose parents divorced when he was 8, was raised in an acrimonious atmosphere. ”I suppose military history was a way for me to channel my anger,” he says. Carr’s youth also inspired The Alienist, about a serial killer whose behavior is linked to an abusive childhood. ”We know most serial killers have been victimized as kids, either mentally or physically. I guess I identify with their rage. Frankly, I’m surprised we don’t have more of them. Maybe we do.”