The Best Book I Read This Month: Surrender, New York by Caleb Carr

First, a disclaimer: my choice for this month is not the best book I read in terms of quality of writing. It is, however, the book that provoked the strongest reaction. In actuality, I still haven't decided whether I like the book. But  the fact that I finished all 592 pages despite my frustrations surely says something.


Surrender, New York is a mystery centered on the deaths of "throwaway," or abandoned, teenagers. It is set in upstate New York, in the fictional Burgoyne County (which is supposedly located in the environs of Albany, near Rensselaer County). The mystery, itself, was one of the better aspects of the book. It was intricate and well-plotted, with some nicely executed twists and turns. The characters--well, the supporting characters--were colorful and their loyalties not always clear. (I like stories and characters that live in the gray areas.) The main character, however, felt flat. More about him later.

I picked up the book based on the jacket copy. I adored Carr's The Alienist and The Angel of Darkness, which centered on a psychologist named Laszlo Kreizler and the development of what we now call forensic psychology in the dawn of the twentieth century. So when I read that Surrender, New York was a contemporary "sequel" to the Kreizler books, I grabbed it. Much to my disappointment, the connection to Kreizler was no more than a gimmick, not much better than name-dropping. It felt forced, and I feel duped. The story would have been just as good--maybe even better--without it. The Kreizler connection simply allowed the author to use his main character (Trajan Jones) to pontificate on everything he (Carr) thinks is wrong with modern law enforcement and forensic science. (He has particular venom for CSI and similar television programs.) This single-minded focus made Jones feel flat as a character, despite Carr's attempts to make him seem otherwise (amputee, cancer survivor, ill-advised love affair, pet cheetah).

Jones's pontifications often took the form of long passages of expository dialogue, another of my frustrations with the book. I found my eyes glazing over and my attention wandering during the especially long ones. Shortening, or even eliminating, many of these passages would have made for a much tighter story.

Carr also displayed a tendency for some rather amateur-level foreshadowing. More than once, I read something along the lines of "Much later, I realized the importance of so-and-so's words." My God, man, let me as the reader realize that importance for myself! Let me figure out the connections on my own! That's what makes a good mystery work.

So, while I recommend The Alienist and The Angel of Darkness wholeheartedly, I am not sure I can do the same for Surrender, New York.