THE ALIENIST/Caleb Carr

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.

Fast-paced and gripping, infused with a historian’s exactitude, The Alienist conjures up the Gilded Age and its untarnished underside: verminous tenements and opulent mansions, corrupt cops and flamboyant gangsters, shining opera houses and seamy gin mills. Here is a New York during an age when questioning society’s belief that all killers are born, not made, could have unexpected and mortal consequences. (Book cover and summary from Goodreads.)

As an introduction, I would like to quote here the note in the first part of the book that explains what, or who, an alienist is.

“Prior to the twentieth century, persons suffering from mental illness were thought to be “alienated,” not only from the rest of society but from their own true natures. Those experts who studied mental pathologies were there known as alienists.”

Historical fiction is not really my cup of tea, (or coffee, if I have my way) although I can make some exceptions especially if the reviews of some “trusted” friends are really good. The few that have made the cut include Francine Rivers’ Mark of the Lion Trilogy (highly recommended by IVCF friends) and Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief (my copy sent by a very good friend all the way from Davao City). With The Alienist, the initial hesitation I felt about the book were erased by the reviews of friends in Goodreads and the really good price of a copy I found in Booksale (Php30.00). Indeed, The Alienist is one extraordinary book of its genre, and I love it for a number of reasons which I’ll be giving out at the end of this lousy introductory paragraph. I wanted badly to write a brilliant, sort of scholarly kind of review because this book deserves such but I am just not capable of such lofty aspirations.

  1. I absolutely love crime/detective stories and this is one thrilling ‘catch the killer” type. Told in the voice of John Schuyler Moore, the story is one good story of suspense all right. Not exactly chest-constricting, throat gripping suspense, but tension-filled in all the right places.
  2. Caleb Carr writes fluidly and vividly which attracts that green-eyed monster feeling out of me called envy. Oh, if only I could write like him.
  3. The New York setting in 1896 is very interesting, especially that the story was set during the time when Theodore Roosevelt is not yet President (yes, Roosevelt plays a role in this book).
  4. All the characters are well thought-of and humor is intelligently placed. I like the tandem of the two eccentric detectives, Marcus and Lucius. And I also like Sara’s feisty character.
  5. The book discusses the ever unresolved debate of nature versus nurture when it comes to criminality. This is a good treatise on the study of criminal behaviour and some parts in the book mention several factual basis that can help the curious and the interested for further study. The theory about the strong influence of a woman character on human behaviour is particularly remarkable.

There are just some things that I particularly did not like, the reason why I cannot give the book the full 5 stars:

  1. The ending was sort of anticlimactic. The capture of the killer really took a number of pages more than what I think it deserved.
  2. Although the story is supposedly about Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, he being the alienist and all, I cannot seem to get into his character. He actually freaks me out, with all due respect.
  3. Some parts, especially when Dr. Kreizler discusses his theories with his team, make me feel like I’m reading a medical journal or a thesis rather than a novel.

All said, I still believe The Alienist, though not exactly a quick and simple read, is one good novel to educate one’s mind about criminal behaviour. It is one brilliant novel and I absolutely recommend this to anyone who would not mind some intellectual read.

4 stars.
23/50 2011 Goodreads Reading Challenge
7/30 Off The Shelf Reading Challenge

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