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Caleb Carr, military historian and author of The Alienist, dies at 68

Author Caleb Carr and his cat Masha (Caleb Carr/Little Brown via AP)
Author Caleb Carr and his cat Masha (Caleb Carr/Little Brown via AP)

Caleb Carr, the gifted son of Beat poet Lucien Carr who endured a traumatising childhood and became a bestselling novelist, accomplished military historian and late-life memoirist of his devoted cat, Masha, has died at 68.

Carr died of cancer on Thursday, according to an announcement from his publisher, Little, Brown and Company.

“Caleb lived his writing life valiantly, with works of politics, history and sociology, but most astonishingly for this historian, with wildly entertaining works of fiction,” Carr’s editor, Joshua Kendall, said in a statement.

Caleb Carr, from Manhattan, was born into literary and cultural history.

Lucien Carr, along with Columbia University classmates Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, helped found the Beat movement, an early and prominent force in the post-Second World War era for improvisation and non-conformity — on and off the page.

Kerouac, Ginsberg and such fellow Beats as William Burroughs and Herbert Huncke were frequent visitors to the Carr apartment, where Caleb Carr remembered gatherings that were enriching, bewildering and, at times, terrifying.

“Kerouac was a very nice man. Allen (Ginsberg) could be a very nice guy,” Carr told Salon in 1997. “But they weren’t children people.”

Lucien Carr would prove his son’s greatest nightmare. The poet had been imprisoned in the 1940s for manslaughter over the death of onetime friend David Kammerer, who clashed with him and was later found in the Hudson River.

Caleb Carr, born more than a decade later to Lucien Carr and Francesca von Hartz, feared he would be the next victim. With a “gleeful” spirit, his father would slap Caleb across the back of his head and regularly knock him down flights of stairs, while trying to blame Caleb for the falls.

Caleb Carr thought of his parents as “the mostly drunken architects” of his household, and they divorced when he was young.

His mother, after turning down Kerouac’s proposal, married writer John Speicher, the father of three girls. Carr and his two brothers referred to their new, blended family as “The Dark Brady Bunch”.

Out of his suffering, Caleb Carr learned to despise violence, fear insanity and probe the origins of cruelty.

In his best-known book, The Alienist, John Schuyler Moore is a New York Times police reporter in 1890s Manhattan who helps investigative a series of vicious murders of adolescent boys.

Carr would call the novel as much a “whydunit” as “whodunit,” and wove in references to the emerging 19th century discipline of psychology as Moore and his friend Dr Laszlo Kreizler track down not just the killer’s identity, but what drove him to his crimes.

The Alienist, published in 1994 and the kind of carefully researched, old-fashioned page-turner the Beats had rebelled against, combined fictional characters such as Moore with historical figures ranging from financial tycoon JP Morgan to restaurateur Charlie Delmonico. Carr also featured the city’s police commissioner at the time, Theodore Roosevelt, with whom the author felt a surprising kinship.

“Personally and psychologically, I had always found TR one of the most compelling figures in US history,” Carr told Strand Magazine in 2018.

“Later I realised that some of this had to do with the fact that, as a young man stricken by physical ailments and the fears they inspire, he was brought through his darkest times by his father, a deeply compassionate and caring man.

“This is often key to great men with noble hearts: an overtly caring father. Having had the reverse — a father who was the chief cause of my childhood fears and ailments — I was drawn to what was, for me, an exotic upbringing.”

The Alienist sold millions of copies, inspired the bestselling sequel Angel of Darkness and was adapted into a TNT miniseries that starred Daniel Bruhl, Luke Evans and Dakota Fanning.

Carr was so successful a novelist that his background as a military historian became obscured. He taught military history at Bard College, was a contributing editor to the Quarterly Journal of Military History and had a close relationship with the scholar James Chace, with whom he wrote America Invulnerable: The Quest for Absolute Security from 1812 to Star Wars.

Carr had written for years about possible terrorism against the US and published a book-length study a few months after the September 11 2001 attacks.

In The Lessons Of Terror, he contended that military campaigns against civilian populations inevitably failed and drew upon lessons dating back to ancient Rome. The Lessons Of Terror sold well, but some critics criticised him.

Carr’s other books included the Sherlock Holmes novel The Italian Secretary, the historical study The Devil Soldier and a 2024 memoir that stood as his literary farewell, My Beloved Monster: Masha, The Half-Wild Rescue Cat Who Rescued Me.

From childhood, Carr was so repulsed by human behaviour that he found himself identifying with cats — and becoming convinced he used to be one.

Carr lived alone for much of his adult life, spending his later years in a massive stone house in New York made possible by royalties from The Alienist and other books, a 1,400-acre property set in the foothills of Misery Mountain.

Carr and rescue cat Masha would share a home for 17 years, until Masha’s death. My Beloved Monster was a kind of dual elegy. As Masha’s health began to decline, Carr had his own troubles, including neuropathy and pancreatitis, illnesses he believed brought on from his childhood abuse.

Watching Masha die, and laid inside a makeshift coffin, was like saying goodbye to his “other self”.

“Some people say that grief is healing; I’ve never found it so. It is scarring, and scarring – is not healing. I have never had someone who was my daily reality for so many years as Masha cut out of my life, my world, and my soul; how can it heal?” Carr wrote.

“Since falling onto this Earth, it seems, I have proved as difficult for my fellow human beings, past the easy points of social convention and amusement, as they have often proved for me.

“But from Masha, no such questions. I was enough; not just enough, but enough that I warranted defending.”