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.