Book Reviews

Book Review: The Alienist

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I’m hesitant to read historical fiction–it can either be done really well or it can be awful. So far my experience is there’s no middle ground. Caleb Carr‘s almost 20-year-old novel was quite good. It probably helps that he started his career in history.

A friend recommended it to me a while ago and it’s been sitting on my shelf for years until I finished it Christmas night.

I’ll always be a sucker for a novel set in New York City around the late 1800s early 1900s. You can blame Edith Wharton for that. But this one managed to bring in the great setting, along with psychology in its infancy, a serial killer, and some strong characters, who I thought interacted well.

Imagine it’s 1986 and there’s someone killing young boys who happen to dress like girls and work in whore houses. The idea is stomach churning, but unfortunately, it’s a very real part of our world, then and now. Theodore Roosevelt is not yet President, but the NYC Police Commissioner, determined to rid the department of its corruption.

This killer is on the loose, and Roosevelt enlists the help of his Harvard friends Lazlo Kriezler and John Moore–Lazlo a psychologist (called alienist at the time and considered kooks at best) and Moore a reporter. Partly because these murders are pretty gruesome, but also because there had been a tendency for the police to ignore the deaths of the poor. They put together a team of trusted yet unorthodox individuals to build a profile on this killer in order to catch him red-handed. They bring in two brothers, inspectors in Roosevelt’s department, with medical training and backgrounds for forensic work, and a woman named Sara–Roosevelt’s secretary. For 1896, allowing a woman on the team is progressive, and Carr balanced the feminist idea without being overbearing.

Lazlo has everything to prove and everything to lose. He’s a very complicated character but also incredibly smart and emotionally detached… most of the time. Since I share that trait with him, I identified with the character and really enjoyed what he brought to the story.

It’s told from Moore’s point of view and he’s reminiscing about twenty years down the road. Being the journalist, it makes sense that’s he’s the one to tell. He feels out-of-place most of the time, wondering why he’s there, but his contributions are substantial.

The detective brothers are somewhat of comic relief. Just when things are getting really tense, they start bickering because that’s what brothers do. They’re also great resources for autopsies, experimental techniques such as fingerprinting, and helping the rest of the group determine if their conclusions are decent enough leads to follow more seriously.

Sara is a gun-toting, proud to be single and not interested in settling down, I can look at anything a man can without hurling, kind of woman. Her nursing background helps in the medical exams, she speaks more than English which comes in very useful, and she’s not afraid to get her hands dirty in the name of the greater good. And she doesn’t hide behind her status as a female when it works against her, either. If she was balls out, “I’m as good as any man here” all the time, it would have been too much–she walked the line carefully between what she could push and what she had to accept as reality for 1896.

The nice “twist” to this story is they figure out who the killer is with about 100 pages to go. They confirm it, and then they have to start thinking like him to predict his next murder. It brings an intimate intensity to the story–they learn how he came to be the murder he is, and of course it humanizes the monster. It’s always so easy to focus on the awful things a person has done and never look at how he/she became the monster in the first place. The whole nature versus future argument.

If I had to nitpick, Roosevelt’s character seemed a little too piously cartoonish. I first should admit I’m far from a Teddy Roosevelt expert so he may have really been that way–I’m more familiar with the “legend.” A sickly boy turned into a larger than life military hero and family man, turned successful politician, without ever losing his moral compass. Being that Carr is a military historian, I feel like I should take him at his word, but it was at times distracting.

The story is also great in that the social and entertainment world of NYC is an important part of the story. Gang leaders stir up trouble, religious and financial leaders have their agendas, immigrant populations start protesting and make the rich white folks uncomfortable, and they have to become fairly familiar with some pretty unsavory places to get their job done. It’s complicated, it’s ugly, and it’s full of “my interests are more important than some boy-whores and I’ll make sure you don’t finish your investigation” pitfalls.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this almost 500 page novel. It was a long read, and at times fairly technical, but it all added to the story in a way older Michael Crichton novels used technical details to make the difference in the direction of the story. They make mistakes, bad things happen as a result, and the guilt weighs on them all–I felt each of the characters could have existed during the time period, and I enjoyed reading their progression and ultimate conclusion.

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