Spoiler-free book review: The Alienist

Title: The Alienist
Author: Caleb Carr
Genre(s): crime fiction, historical fiction, mystery, suspense, psychological thriller

It’s been a while since I’ve written and posted a book review. I’ve actually read many books prior to this review for The Alienist, so it wasn’t like I had a dry spell before this, but it’s a lot easier said than done to sit down and come up with coherent thoughts. However, I thoroughly enjoyed The Alienist enough to feel compelled about discussing it.

This book came out in the same year I was born (1994), though like most, I didn’t find out about it until the TV show that was produced much more recently in 2018. I wanted to read the original novel before seeing the adaptation, so no, I didn’t watch the show prior to reading The Alienist. I can’t yet comment on the similarities and differences between the two.

The Alienist is historical crime fiction set in 1890s New York, a city teeming with corrupt police, poor immigrants, and roiling activity of its seedy underbelly. Dr. Lazslo Kriezler, a psychologist (called an alienist at the time) teams up with John Moore, his newspaper reporter friend, Sara Howard, a woman working as a secretary in the police department, and Marcus and Lucius Isaacson, two Jewish detectives, to investigate a series of grisly murders. The killer targets exclusively boy prostitutes who dress up like women and subjects them to horrific mutilations. Forced to investigate in secret, the team is pressed for time to crack the clues behind the killer’s behavior, motives, and context (as Dr. Kriezler puts it) before he strikes again.

From page one, The Alienist had me at the edge of the seat, and I came down with a bad case of can’t-put-it-downitis. The sinister, grisly nature of the case, along with the team putting their heads together to piece the puzzle, kept me turning the pages. What’s the killer going to do next? What’s the team going to do next? Most importantly, why is the killer doing what he’s doing? Carr raises and answers these questions throughout, keeping me itching to find out until the very end.

Dr. Kriezler’s “theory of context” provides the framework and approach to the investigation. In figuring out the killer’s behavior and motives, Dr. Kriezler places emphasis on what happened during childhood, those formative years that leave a lifelong influence on any given individual. It’s this approach that he encourages everyone else in the team to adapt. And, in a way, Carr is encouraging the readers to think like this as well. For much of the narrative, the killer looms at large as a sinister force beyond description and prediction. But bit by bit, the pieces come together to form an actual human being with feelings and wounds of his own.

In addition to this amazing buildup of the antagonist, The Alienist is just as effective in presenting fleshed-out, likeable protagonists in the investigation team. As someone who enjoys reading and writing team dynamics, I really enjoyed this aspect of the book. Everyone in the team has his or own unique set of skills, expertise, and perspective. Dr. Kriezler has his psychological theories that are considered unusual and even reprehensible among his peers. As a reporter, John Moore can seamlessly move between high society and the seedy underbelly of New York. Sara Howard, being the only woman on the team, often provides valuable insight that would’ve otherwise escaped the notice of her male colleagues. The Isaacson brothers, ostracized from a predominantly Irish Catholic police force, are bold in pursuing the frontiers of forensic science, employing methods that, at the time, don’t hold credible weight and acceptance. No one feels like a useless accessory or a one-dimensional caricature. The occasional scenes of banter and comedy among the team members balance out the otherwise sinister, grisly nature of the case they’re undertaking. Also, there’s something poignant and beautiful about all these characters, marginalized or pushed to the fringes in some way, coming together to pursue this mystery and find justice for young victims the rest of society cared less about. If I had to choose a favorite character, it would be Sara Howard. She’s unapologetically bold, independent, and sharp, with a talent for the detecting business and an indomitable sense of justice, yet also kind and sensitive. What’s not to love about a detective in the making toting a gun in the folds of her dress? I file Sara under “strong female characters I want to read and write about.”

Admittedly I’m no American history aficionado, so I can’t comment on accuracy of the real-life characters and locations. In my opinion, however, Carr does a good job immersing the reader in the sights, sounds, and smells of New York. It felt like a trip back in time, and given the danger the investigation team often finds itself in, I found myself both relieved to see the case close and wanting more of the team’s adventures. As someone who doesn’t often read mysteries (as I consider myself not intelligent enough to grasp them), I still really enjoyed this book. I highly recommend.

5/5

“The Bedazzling Dragon of Vanderlyst” now available to read

My first publication for 2021 is out in the wild in the Shark Week anthology! The editor, Ian Keller, wanted to put together ocean-themed stories and since I’ve always loved the ocean and its critters, I was all on board for it. My story is about a Vietnamese dragon who’s adopted by Vanderlyst: a Norwegian circus troupe of dolphins and whales. Like “Vietnamized” in Difursity volume 1, this Shark Week story is another exploration of Vietnamese diaspora and protagonist wrestling with distance and disconnection from their cultural origins.

“The Bird and Baby” available to read

My short story on half-crow Russian plague doctors is out in the wild in Stupefying Stories issue 23! I had actually written this story in 2018, before the covid-19 pandemic, and had it accepted in the same year. 3 years later, it’s finally out. A few elements in this story are a wink and nod to two certain anime I really enjoy: Berserk and Claymore. It’s up to you to find out what those elements are. 😉

“Tiger of the New Moon” available to read

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My short story “Tiger of the New Moon” has been released into the wild through the August 2020 issue of Anathema. It’s based on Vietnamese folklore that’s overlooked enough that if you google it, you can find results only in Vietnamese. I heard about it thanks to my parents. With this story, I’ve brought it over to English and put a spin on it. I had this story workshopped at Taos Toolbox, so I owe a huge thanks to my Taos cohort for the feedback that helped me make the story stronger.

You can read it for free (here).

Short Story Acceptance #15

“Tiger of the New Moon” is coming to Anathema Magazine: Spec Fic From the Margins! The story is a feminist fairy-tale spin on obscure Vietnamese folklore: Ông Ba Mươi, or the tiger known as Mister Thirty. I heard about this piece of folklore from my parents. It’s not something you can easily find online, because none of it is translated into English. This story was critiqued during week 2 at Taos Toolbox, so I owe the instructors and classmates a huge thanks for helping me shape this story into something worthy of publication. I’m really excited to share the direction I took with Ông Ba Mươi.

Thoughts regarding the George Floyd protests from a troubled Vietnamese Catholic

The more I think about the Pentecost homily at my parish last Sunday, the more I feel compelled to speak up about it, and against it. The priest began with equating the Holy Spirit pouring knowledge and inspiration onto the disciples to how teachers educate their kids, especially during the pandemic. He called the teachers heroes, and rightfully so, that’s all fine and good.

But then he went on to say that the police are heroes too, for breaking up the riots. Worse, no positive word at all for the protestors, nor expression of concern and solidarity for the suffering and hurting Black community. That left me very unsettled and disappointed. That the priest is Vietnamese, like me, doesn’t help. I spotted Black people attending Mass with me; my reaction to the homily must’ve been the tip of the iceberg compared to theirs.

Part of me wants to give him the benefit of the doubt. He’s a warm friendly goofball otherwise. I don’t know the entirety of his thoughts and stance on recent events, and there’s only so much a priest can bring up in a homily. But the message he chose to convey, to 500 something people attending either in person or from home (yeah my parish is big), didn’t leave a good impression. As someone who’s very non-confrontational in nature, I’d quietly stomach down my dissent over things I’d hear and disagree with, but no longer.

What should have been said is that the heroes of recent days are not the police, but the protestors, especially the Black community, crying out for change and justice. That the Holy Spirit is moving through them to set the world on fire.

Don’t get me wrong, I still love the parish I’d been baptized in and essentially raised in as a 2nd home. God is the shepherd and I’m part of his flock, but I won’t be the kind of sheep who complicitly accepts everything I hear and neglects to think critically.

“Vietnamized” available to read

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I have an original short story featured in an anthology with stories by furries of color. You can order it (here), or from my short fiction page.

Premise of “Vietnamized”: A Vietnamese tigress’s relationships with her parents and Nigerian elephant boyfriend change forever when a traumatic head injury renders her unable to speak English.

Made the list of recommended short fiction on Tor

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“Caring For Dragons and Growing a Flower,” published in Podcastle, got on Tor’s list of recommended short fiction for April. This is the closest I’ve gotten to an appearance at Tor. Fran Wilde, James Corey, and Alix Harrow, among others, are the authors recommended along with me. I’m in good company!