October 17, 1997 at 04:00 AM EDT

Caleb Carr is moving up in the world. And up, and up, and up. Loping up the steps to his apartment with long-legged ease, Carr, 42, arrives at the door of his fifth-floor walk-up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side with a courtly grin, only to find that his visitor has been left gasping a floor below.

Someone needs to tell this man that an elevator building wouldn’t ruin his image.

It can’t be easy clinging to a struggling-artist attitude with $1.5 million in the bank. Carr first hit pay dirt with 1994’s The Alienist, about the hunt for a serial killer in turn-of-the-century Manhattan. Writing with equal grace about beaux arts architecture and gruesome mutilation, interweaving fictional characters with such historical figures as Theodore Roosevelt, Carr was embraced by the critical literati, the poolside-reading public, and Hollywood as well, with producer Scott Rudin (In & Out) snapping up the movie rights for $500,000.

Now Carr is hoping for the same kind of response to The Alienist‘s sequel, The Angel of Darkness, which reunites many of the same characters in the search for a murderous woman with a particular interest in children. Unlike its predecessor, which became a best-seller a month after publication largely through word of mouth, Angel of Darkness debuted in September at No. 4 on the New York Times best-seller list.

But if a $500,000 advance would send most authors to the nearest real estate agent, Carr — who is single — has splurged on a new set of golf clubs and a bass guitar.

”I try really hard to be normal,” says Carr, settling into one of the two worn wing-backed chairs in his shadowy living room, which — with its dusty desks, golf-ball strewn rug, illustrated medical dictionary, and vase of dead yellow roses — looks like it belongs to a sophisticated, if slightly morbid, college student.

”When I was growing up,” he continues softly, glancing at the wall where his videotapes are stacked, Goonies on top of Remains of the Day, ”I used to imagine that when someone wrote my biography one day there’d be this section about how I finally became a normal person. I was always a freak. Everything I did just seemed to upset people, and they’d say, ‘Why is he so weird?’ ”

His upbringing was far from Rockwellian: Carr and his two brothers — Simon, 44, a painter; and Ethan, 39, a landscape architect — were raised by their mother, Francesca von Hartz, and father, Lucien, a beatnik book editor, in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Caleb attended the Quaker school Friends Seminary, where he found himself in constant trouble for disorderly behavior. ”Here was an intellectual, bookish teenager fascinated by military history at a Quaker high school. They probably would have been more comfortable with a passivist pot smoker,” says his agent and high school friend, ICM’s Suzanne Gluck.

After two unhappy years at Ohio’s Kenyon College, Carr returned to New York, enrolled at NYU, and wrote for military-history periodicals. He also churned out two nonfiction books before beginning research on The Alienist. Through it all, he kept his eye on Hollywood — ”Movies are very important to me,” he says simply — and when Rudin expressed interest in a movie version of The Alienist, Carr accepted. With hesitation.

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