I admit it: I judge books by their covers. Many moons ago, I saw the cover of Caleb Carr*’s The Alienist in a book store. I don’t remember why I didn’t buy it, but I’ve been intrigued by the book ever since…and yet, not entirely sure what it’s about. What do I remember of the cover? A blurry sepia-toned picture circa the late 1800s that is reminiscent of a Sherlock Holmes’ cover.
A few weeks ago, I picked up Carr’s The Angel of Darkness, The Alienist‘s sequel (it was on the bookshelf and I needed something to read). It’s interesting. The book (and the original) takes place in the late 1800s, roughly the same time as Sherlock Holmes. However, Carr’s cast of characters are decidedly modern: black man who’s treated as an equal; street urchin using his skills for good; strong, independent woman; police detectives who use cutting edge scientific methods; and a doctor on the cutting edge of psychology.
Through this diverse group of people, we meet historic figures and solve a gruesome crime (I assume solve, I’m not finished yet). It’s an interesting story and I am engaged with the narrator. However, the historical meetings make me roll my eyes a bit. As a kid, I loved when historical figured showed up in fiction – how cool to imagine a what if scenario. Now, it’s more of a car crash reaction from me: I wince, but want to look anyway. I want to see if the author was able to pull it off. I’m undecided on Angel at the moment.
The use of nascent forensics is interesting. For me, it’s along the same lines as the historical characters, a what if scenario. It’s fun trying to imagine what it was like on the frontier of science and, after all, someone had to do it first – might as well be your characters. However, one passage stopped me in my tracks. The characters actually described ballistics.
I can understand that from a Sherlock Holmes book. After all, that science was still new and unproven when the books were written. Holmes had to describe what was going on to Watson because the readers wouldn’t necessarily know what it was.
But now? Carr is a modern author writing for a modern audience. I can understand if a character of the time would need a little help, but a page’s worth? What about a toss away line that sums up what, I assume, modern readers already know? Of course, I watch shows that toss those terms around (and not always 100% accurately, I’m sure). However, with the sheer volume of news and trial coverages out there, I think that most people would understand what ballistics is.
Am I assuming too much? And what about you? What do you read descriptions of when you assume people already know all about it?
*Not to be confused by Calen Carr, whose name I keep typing by mistake. Go Fire!