How effective are the books The Alienist by Caleb Carr and The Underdogs by Mariano Azuela in recreating the temper of the times in New York and Mexico respectively?

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Although the two novels were written decades apart and are concerned with different eras and environments, they have numerous similarities in their vivid evocation of a time and place. In terms of the author’s position and time perspective, they have significant differences.

Mariano Azuela situates his novel primarily in the rural villages that generated the masses of informal soldiers who composed a revolutionary army in support of Francisco, “Pancho,” Villa. He published the novel while many of the events were occurring. Azuela portrays the people’s poverty, describing the smallholders’ and indebted peons’ agricultural fields that could barely sustain them. Although Azuela was born into a middle-class family, during and after the revolution he traveled throughout the countryside, so his descriptions ring true because he witnessed many of the conditions firsthand.

Caleb Carr was writing almost a century after the events he depicts (in the 1990s about the 1890s). Although much of the built environment he describes was already in place, some of it was new at that time. He effectively conveys the effects of the building boom, including such marvels as the Brooklyn Bridge. Carr’s attention to detail helps contribute to the ominous atmosphere appropriate to a murder mystery. His novel highlights the contributions or urban professionals, not rural peasants, although he draws on the city’s underworld, including prostitution, and explores the plight of the working poor. It is primarily an investigation of a serial killer, rather than a social realist critique, but the victims include poor immigrants and one of the sleuths is an underprivileged teenage boy. The vast gulf between rich and poor in the age of the “robber barons” is further brought home by including real people, such as J.P. Morgan, among the characters. The police procedural aspects are enhanced by including Theodore Roosevelt, who was then the city’s police commissioner.

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Mariano Azuela's The Underdogs, published in 1915, is now recognized as the "classic story of the Mexican Revolution." It follows the story of Demetrio Macías as he works his way up to the rank of a general in Pancho Villa's army, with Villa and his forces positioned as heroes fighting on behalf of the poor people of Mexico. The novel accurately depicts and speaks out against post-revolutionary corruption in the Mexican government and examines the poverty that has impacted Mexican citizens well into the twenty-first century. 

Caleb Carr's The Alienist, published in 1994, is set in New York City in 1896. Although a work of fiction, this novel is a historical one in the sense that it identifies the new ideas of the time around detective work, particularly the creation of the term "serial killer." The narrative also follows the sophisticated (and very new) forensic investigational methods that had not yet become popular, including fingerprinting and the Bertillon system, and introduces a character as the one of the first female additions to the New York Police Department. 

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