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Caleb Carr – The Alienist

May 21, 2012

50. The Alienist by Caleb Carr (1994)
Laszlo Kreizler, Book 1

Length: 498 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction, Psychological Thriller

Started: 29 April 2012
Finished: 03 May 2012

Where did it come from? Bookmooch.
Why do I have it? Memory’s fault.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 29 May 2010.

Finding serial
killers is harder when there’s
no word for them yet.

Summary: In the New York City of 1896, corruption was rampant, particularly in the city’s police department. New Police Commissioner Teddy Roosevelt was attempting reform, but a number of cases still fell through the cracks. An apparent pattern in several of these cases is brought to the attention of Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, a psychologist (or “alienist”) who is obsessed with the ways in which childhood experience can shape later life. The cases all involve the violent and disturbing murders of immigrant children – specifically those who had been making their living at one of the city’s numerous brothels. Kreizler, along with reporter John Moore, two of the top (and first) forensic scientists of the time, and a young woman determined to become the city’s first female police officer, must push police work beyond where it has gone before, creating a profile of this shadowy serial killer… and finding him before he can strike again.

Review: While I didn’t always love the packaging, the story at the core of The Alienist was an excellent detective mystery. The pacing is excellent, the historical detail is fascinating, and the action/thriller parts were properly exciting. It’s not a mystery in a whodunit sense, where the clues are all given to the reader, and that reader can piece together the solution on their own; because the detectives are working on profiling the killer, who could be anyone in the city, there’s not really that element of solving the mystery for yourself. Nevertheless, I was kept thoroughly engaged by Kreizler’s team’s efforts, even when I couldn’t see (or even guess) where they were going.

But really, the best part about this book for me was the historical atmosphere. While I like the idea of Gilded Age NYC in theory, several of my past encounters with it in fiction have been rather disappointing (a problem of the prose, not the setting, but a strong enough association to make me wary.) Carr, however, brings the era wonderfully to life, taking readers from the glitzy world of Delmonico’s Restaurant to the dankest and darkest slums and brothels. He also manages to smoothly incorporate not just the feeling of the city itself, but also some aspects of the wider political and social climate of the time, which doesn’t always happen in historical fiction. And most of all, I found the glimpse into the history of mental illness and the early days of forensics completely fascinating; it was a time in which the idea that fingerprints were unique and invariant was still considered quackery, but it was widely believed that the retina retained an image of the last thing a person saw before death.

This book is written as a memoir from Moore’s point of view. While this did lend some reflective, larger-picture aspects to the story than it would have had if it hadn’t been told in the first person, I think the lack of immediacy hurt the story more than it helped. For starters, it’s clear that if Moore is telling the story, he must have survived its events, which diffuses some of the suspense of what would otherwise have been very tense scenes. But what mostly annoyed me was that the memoir framework was used to put these really broad, portentous “teaser” hints throughout the book: a lot of “we didn’t know it at the time, but…”-type statements that would take chapters to be revealed and resolved. But in the grand scheme of things, that’s relatively minor; most of what this book does, it does very well indeed. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: The comparison that kept coming to mind while I read was to Devil in the White City; despite the fiction/non-fiction divide, they’re actually very similar not only in subject matter but also in tone. But more broadly, I think this one should definitely be on the radar for any fan of historical mysteries, or fans of modern mysteries who are interested in the early days of serial killers and forensic detective work.

From a conversation in which all of the male investigators are hesitant to discuss an aspect of the case involving fecal matter – or even the term itself – in the presence of a lady:

At that Sara stood up, put one hand to a hip, and with the other produced her derringer from some nether region of her dress. “I would like to warn you all right now,” she said tightly, “that the next man who uses the word ‘lady,’ in that context and in my presence, will be *shitting* from a new and artificially manufactured hole in his gut.” –p. 208

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Entomology of a Bookworm, A Little Bookish, Reviews by Lola, Stella Matutina
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: Theodore is in the ground.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 7: “Looking beyond him I saw Kreizler’s small Canadian calash.” – a light vehicle pulled by one or two horses, seating two to four passengers, and having two or four wheels, a seat for a driver on a splashboard, and sometimes a folding top.
  • p. 8: “Besides being, as the Police Department had put it, “a thief, pickpocket, drunkard, nicotine fiend, feeler” – the member of a banco team that lures dupes to the site of the game – “and congenitally destructive menace,” all by the time he was teen, Stevie had attacked and badly maimed one of the guards on Randalls Island, who he claimed had tried to assault him.” – a declaration made by a bettor in certain gambling games, as baccarat and chemin de fer, indicating a bet matching the full amount in the bank, to the exclusion of all previous lower bets.
  • p. 16: “They knew full well that they were precariously positioned at the moment between the powerful wave of municipal reform that had swept into New York with the findings of the Lexow Commission on police corruption a year earlier (of which Roosevelt was a strong exponent) and the perhaps greater power of that same corruption, which had existed for as long as the force and was now quietly biding its time, waiting until the public wearied of the passing fashion of reform and sank back into business as usual.” – a person or thing that is a representative, advocate, type, or symbol of something.
  • p. 86: “On it were four ounces of sevruga caviar, some thin slices of toast, a bottle of ice-cold vodka, and several small, frosted glasses: a thoroughly admirable habit Kreizler had picked up during a trip to St. Petersburg.” – a species of sturgeon, Acipenser stellatus, of the Caspian and Black seas.
  • p. 160: “During his last years he’d become a regular drinking companion of Roosevelt’s younger brother, Elliot, whose life was also ended by dipsomania some years later.” – an irresistible, typically periodic craving for alcoholic drink.
  • p. 191: ““Papa” Brübacher, a truly gemütlich restaunteur who was always glad to see a regular customer, had assembled one of the best wine and beer cellars in New York, and the terrace of his establishment, across the street from the east side of Union Square, was an ideal place from which to watch people stroll in the park as the sun descended beyond the western terminus of Fourteenth Street.” – friendly; easygoing.
  • p. 255: ““Jewish faro,” he answered, giving the criminal class’s name for the game of stuss, a particularly shady and complicated method of bilking suckers that I’d never been able to comprehend.” – a card game, a variant of faro in which the cards are dealt from the dealer’s hand, and the house wins all the money when drawing two equal cards.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 21, 2012 4:19 pm

    I would never have guessed what the book’s about from the title. You’ve made it sound fascinating.

    • May 21, 2012 6:22 pm

      Kathy – The note at the beginning says that during the early days of psychology, those with mental illness were considered to be alienated from their true natures, therefore those that studied them were called “alienists.” But I didn’t know that before beginning either!

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