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[832] Behind Closed Doors – B.A. Paris

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“Since joining our circle of friends a month ago, I’m sure she’s been told over and over again that Grace Angel, wife of brilliant lawyer Jack Angel, is a perfect example of a woman who has it all—the perfect house, the perfect husband, the perfect life.” (8)

Or does she? The story grips you from the very beginning. Husband and wife of this perfect marriage are hosting a gourmet dinner for two other couples, who have become their new firm friends when the Angels moved into town. But it’s easy to spot tension that percolates the conversation around the table. Grace is compelled to say the right words and acts in accord to her husband’s dictate. She is acting under his silent duress.

The story alternates between the present and the past, and is told from Grace’s point of view. The past is only a few weeks before they get married after a whirlwind of romance. Angel believes she’s the luckiest woman to have married Jack, a brilliant lawyer who genuinely seems to care for her 17-year-old sister, Millie, who has Down’s syndrome. The past-intertwining-present narrative style drives the story with such mounting tension and relentless pace, with the end of each chapter being a cliffhanger. The plot is basic but strewn with decoys and twists. It’s a mental cat-and-mouse chase, a constant game of one-upping. The domestic psychological thriller reminds us that sometimes the worst terror comes not from strangers but those closest to us.

351 pp. St. Martin Press. Advanced Reader’s Copy. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[817] The Alienist – Caleb Carr

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“From that moment on, he said, we must make every possible effort to rid themselves of preconceptions about human behavior. We must try not to see the world through our own eyes, nor to judge it by our own values, but through and by those of our killer.” (Ch.13, 129)

The Alienist is an engrossing historical fiction taking place in New York City just before the turn of the century. It revolves around the activities of one of the first forensic investigations in world history. In 1896 a serial killer is brutally slaughtering young transverstite boy prostitutes and mutilating their bodies. With neither the public nor the police interested in lives or deaths of these abominations to society, and that the poor and the new-immigrated warrant little attention, there is very little incentive to investigate. Not only is the police not interested, along with church officials who are only concerned with their own monetary interests, they contrive to obfuscate and suppress facts of the crimes.

If we accepted the supposition of his sanity, then we were left with the nagging question of what possible satisfaction or benefit he could be deriving from the butchery. (Ch.15, 157)

The task of tracking the killer has been assigned to Theodore Roosevelt’s (Police Commissioner at the time) old friend from his Harvard days, Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, who is an alienist, or an expert on mental pathologies (minds that are alienated from themselves). Kreizler recruits John Schuyler Moore, a police reporter for the New York Times to investigate, along with Sara Howard, a woman detective who is looked down upon by her male colleagues. A firm believer in psychological causation, Kreizler thinks the context of life leads to a psychopath, The dredging up of this argument takes reader to the philosophical heart of the book, which explores the causes of sanity and criminality, and ultimately the nature of evil.

So unfolded is a challenging and tedious investigation on various facets. Between setbacks, interference, slow advances, with the help of modern forensic techniques, a profile containing the killer’s facts and personal histories is assembled. The team comes to terms with the mandate that they have to abandon their own preconceptions and start seeing the world in the killer’s shoes. When confrontation with the killer becomes inevitably imminent, on the killer’s schedule, the team comes to empathize with a man who is equal parts predator and prey.

The Alienist isn’t only an ingenious thriller, it gives authenticity of old New York. This I attribute to the fact that Caleb Carr is a historian and biographer. Beneath its rich historical trappings is a breathless and sometimes grisly detective story that reveals the social turmoil of the time. It shows, sadly, that a crisis like the serial killer is inevitable because he is himself an offspring of a society and its sick conscience. The killer dodges the law but craves the society, craves the opportunity to show people what their society had done to him. And the odd thing, as Carr has really nailed, is that society revels men like the killer who are easy repositories of all that is dark and wrong in our own social world. Society tolerates what makes the killer.

498 pp. Random House. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[763] A Site for Sore Eyes – Ruth Rendell

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” The house they stood in front of was described by those who knew about such things as a Georgian cottage and built of the kind of red bricks usually called mellow. But at this time of year, midsummer, almost all the brickwork was hidden under a dense drapery of Virginia creeper, its leaves green, glossy and quivering in the light breeze. The whole surface of the house seemed to shiver and rustle, a vertical sea of green ruffled into wavelets by the wind. ”

A Site for Sore Eyes tells three stories: Amidst the squalor of North London, in the hands of neglectful parents, Rendell describes in vivid details the cultural sewer in which Teddy Grex grew up. He becomes a gifted woodcrafter who appreciates everything beautiful. But he is also a psycopath capable of the vilest crimes. Francine is a mentally fragile girl who became mute after witnessing her mother’s murder. Then there’s Orcadia Cottage, greatly admired by Teddy, scene of a famous painting that is at the center of much of the story’s anguish.

These three seemingly separate stories gradually merge into one horrific tale. Rendell weaves a puzzle and as one tries to put together the pieces, the reader is captivated by her ability, her understanding of human behavior and her rendering everything into a mesmerizing whole. For once both Teddy and Francine are damaged people. Unloved as a child Teddy has grown to become a cold and indifferent young man who turns to beautiful objects for fulfillment. Francine is traumatized by the sight of her mother’s murder, making her vulnerable to the overbearing possessiveness of her stepmother, Julia. Teddy becomes obsessed with Francine after the first meeting…

This book is very dark and spooky. It is a crime novel, but one in which we see the crime happen in very brazen manner. But even the criminality is not what makes this book dark. Rather, the darkness comes from watching the three disparate (at first) characters live their lives in a broken society, one where privilege and poverty exist to keep the other in check. Both serve as a kind of prison, and in fact this book really is about prisons, both metaphorical and literal.

A Site for Sore Eyes paves the way for The Vault as the three stories converge toward the end but not resolved. There are a number of threads that come together in an inexorable way. It’s a chilling book but very humanized. This is the kind of book that keeps you guessing, and pushing you off the edge of the seat because of the blindspots imposed on the characters.

417 pp. Arrow UK. Mass Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]