The Alienist by Caleb Carr

Summary from Goodreads:

The year is 1896, the place, New York City. On a cold March night New York Times reporter John Schuyler Moore is summoned to the East River by his friend and former Harvard classmate Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, a psychologist, or "alienist." On the unfinished Williamsburg Bridge, they view the horribly mutilated body of an adolescent boy, a prostitute from one of Manhattan's infamous brothels.

The newly appointed police commissioner, Theodore Roosevelt, in a highly unorthodox move, enlists the two men in the murder investigation, counting on the reserved Kreizler's intellect and Moore's knowledge of New York's vast criminal underworld. They are joined by Sara Howard, a brave and determined woman who works as a secretary in the police department. Laboring in secret (for alienists, and the emerging discipline of psychology, are viewed by the public with skepticism at best), the unlikely team embarks on what is a revolutionary effort in criminology-- amassing a psychological profile of the man they're looking for based on the details of his crimes. Their dangerous quest takes them into the tortured past and twisted mind of a murderer who has killed before, and will kill again before the hunt is over.

Caleb Carr is a military historian and therefore it comes as no surprise that The Alienist is not only a well crafted detective story but also a well-researched one. That being said, the feat lies in whether he will be able to incorporate history without making the whole story seem improbable or contrived or just plain preposterous. Carr of course, managed to pull it off.

First off, I immediately took note of The Alienist's atmosphere. I think Carr writes with vivid detail that I felt the seedy, smoky, and gothic surroundings of 1896 New York City. It is just how I imagined old New York would be. There is that disparity of opulent living on one side, with ostentatious churches, opera houses, and restaurants. And on another are the slums, tenements, and pleasure houses lined one after another. 

Second, I quite enjoyed that Carr managed to incorporate facts about the birth of psychology and forensic science. It's criminal profiling at its earliest. I witnessed the beginnings of handwriting analysis, fingerprinting, the Bertillion system, and retina scans. No snazzy glow sticks, or advanced microscopes to aid the rag tag crew of investigators. And it was pretty cool. Psychology was also still a burgeoning science at that time, but considered as somewhat an inflammatory study, but I never realized how necessary this science is to criminal investigations until now. 

Third, it presented quite a substantial question for me to ponder on and it was when Dr. Kreisler advocated his fellow investigators to not view the killer as a monster, but rather as a man who was once a child. That thinking about evil, madness, and barbarity is absolutely pointless. That we have to deconstruct him first and see how he came into this dark road.  And I thought, how much harder it would be for the society to truly persecute him for his acts because well he isn't, not technically, an evil monster. 

But here are the few things that I did not take much to:

1. The pacing is a little bit sluggish that it dragged the excitement of the pursuit down. I realize that Caleb Carr is being meticulous but I just think I would have enjoyed it more if he sped things up just a notch.

2.  The characters lacked meat. They were great characters, if only they were explored a little bit more. With that said, I did not feel strongly about any of them. Even Dr. Kreisler's back story did not work much for me. 

All in all, I still think The Alienist is a solid and well put-together historical thriller. It's like Victorian CSI meets Sherlock. Doesn't that sound cool?

Comments

  1. It's the Victorian CSI "feel" that I like best about this book. :)

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    Replies
    1. I know right? The Isaacson Brothers were pretty awesome doing all the forensic stuff. :)

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