The Great Novels, vol. 2: The Alienist
The hunt is on for a baffling new kind of criminal… A serial killer. This is the reading experience of a lifetime.
So read the cover of the paperback edition of Caleb Carr’s tremendous suspense novel, The Alienist. I was hooked immediately and bought it on sight. I had read an enthusiastic review of the novel when it was first published in hardcover, so I kind of realized what I was getting into. But I had no idea that it would wind up being one of my favorite works of fiction. I started reading the book on a flight down to Florida, where I was heading for a week of vacation. I ended up finishing the book just a couple of days later; it was too hard not to go back to it, even while staying at a beach side resort.
I have recommended this book to lots of people and the most frequent response has been, “I’m not really into science fiction.” Well, neither am I. And despite the strange title, The Alienist has nothing to do with sci-fi. You see, back before the turn of the century (the late 1800’s; I keep forgetting about the recent turn of the century), people who were mentally ill were thought to be “alienated” from society. The experts that studied such people were therefore called alienists. They were the forerunners of psychology.
As noted earlier, the novel takes place in 1896. It is a time when future president Teddy Roosevelt is the New York City Police Commissioner. A series of ghastly murders begins; young boys who are paid to dress up as girls to prostitute themselves are being found not just murdered, but strangely mutilated as well. Roosevelt, who is new on the job as commissioner and clashes with the old-school police and high society (due to his effort to fight corruption) stakes his reputation on an unusual team he gathers to solve the crimes. He turns to well-known alienist Dr. Laszlo Kreizler to figure out not only who is committing these heinous crimes, but why they are compelled to do so. Kreizler is a compelling character, supremely intelligent and far ahead of his time but also widely distrusted by virtually everyone, as the study of the human mind was in it’s infancy and often seen as crackpot science. Roosevelt has known Kreizler for a long time, however, and trusts his theories. Mutual friend John Moore, a crime writer for the New York Times is brought along by Kriezler, and it is through his eyes the story unfolds. Moore narrates the book and gives a spellbinding account of not only the crimes, but also turn of the century New York. The novel does a terrific job of actually transporting the reader back in time, to a place where carriage rides through dusky street lamp lit roads was the norm.
Kreizler and Moore also recruit Sarah Howard, a strong, fiery woman who yearns to be the first female police officer in the city. Steve Taggert and Cyrus Montrose, two former patients of Kreizler now in his charge, join up and serve various purposes. Roosevelt also wants an official police presence on the team and adds the brothers Isaacson, Marcus and Lucious, who are detective sergeants with a keen interest in criminal science. Through these brothers, we are introduced to radical new procedures such as fingerprinting and other, less successful methods of evidence gathering. And although Roosevelt doesn’t interfere, he casts a large shadow over the whole investigation.
As more bodies turn up, it becomes obvious that the immense social divide between rich and poor will only make things more difficult for our investigators. The lowlifes and gangsters don’t want their profitable businesses (including prostitution) to become the focus of a police investigation. The rich, meanwhile, don’t even want to here of such sordid crimes and don’t care one whit about the victims, as they are “undesirables” to begin with. Narrator Moore shows us both sides of the city and the culture war boiling below the surface.
The investigation takes many twists and turns, dead ends are numerous and promising leads vanish into thin air. All the while, Kreizler keeps us well informed about then-modern psychiatric theories and why he agrees (or disagrees) with them. These ruminations are fascinating and give discreet clues at to what is going on. As the teams gets closer to the answers, they also come closer to alienating everyone in the city: the rich, the poor, the gangsters and of course, the actual killer. And no one around them can be trusted.
Finding the killer is no easy task as they are basically looking for a needle in a haystack. With such seedy characters all around them, there is no shortage of suspects and no shortage of danger either. The pressure on them is enormous as the gangsters push back, the rich try to make it all go away, and the police board and society puts Roosevelt under terrific strain. It bears noting that the Roosevelt character is terrific, full of gumption and vigor, and he becomes flesh and blood before your eyes. Carr does a tremendous job of drawing him out fully and the novel is all the stronger for it.
The Alienist is many things: a page turner, a suspense thriller, an historical work of fiction and a treatise on the early days of psychology. It does all of these things remarkably well and the sum winds up being even greater than the parts. One of the original reviews stated that it was a cross between The Silence Of The Lambs and Ragtime. That’s a great line, but mostly because it is completely accurate. You’ll be enthralled by the crimes and investigation as well as 1890’s New York come to life. Come for the suspense and stay for the atmosphere. The Alienist has it all in spades.