A couple of pages before finishing The Alienist, I declared that it is the most complete mystery I have ever read. Months after finishing this book, I still don’t think that was hyperbole. Using the milieu of New York City in the middle of the Gilded Age, historian-turned-novelist Caleb Carr pits the emerging phenomenon of the serial killer against the pioneers of what would become criminal profiling in this fascinating example of a historical thriller.
At the center of the story is Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, an engimatic alienist–early word for psychiatrist–who is attempting to solve a series of gruesome murders targeting boy prostitutes in 1896 New York. He faces challenges from all sides: notorious proponents of morality are unwilling to accept the existence of boy prostitutes (or any form of homosexual trade) in the first place, and policemen of the time are violently opposed to any form of scientific inquiry into the criminal mind. With the help of a young, reform-minded Theodore Roosevelt, Kreizler creates a small team of intelligent and determined proto-profilers who gather material and pyschological evidence in order to create the portrait of an urban predator.
Moneyed journalist John Schuyler Moore is the narrator for the entire novel, chronicling his inclusion to the team as well as his long-standing history with Kreizler and Roosevelt. They are joined by Sarah Hamilton, a secretary in the New York police department who has her eyes on a more prominent role in law enforcement, as well as the Isaacson brothers, talented Jewish detectives who feel marginalized and underused in their current positions.
I require a lot before I’m able to completely buy into an extended 1st person POV, especially when it comes to historical fiction. The diction and inner life of the narrator must be just right, or else I start to disbelieve or distrust what they’re saying–a dealbreaker for me. The Alienist, however, is pitch perfect in terms of the rhythms required from a profiling-focused mystery. Though not strictly “intellectual” in the way, say, a Perez-Reverte mystery is, there is still enough meat here to engage the mind even as Kreizler and team engage in copious amounts of legwork throughout their investigation.
Much like the early seasons of Criminal Minds may seem ponderous compared to other types of police procedurals, the tension here isn’t on the action, but in the steady accumulation and discovery of the serial killer’s history, pathology and motivations. The final confrontation is almost an afterthought, in fact, and I did feel that the scenes by end with their attempts to understand the killer become overlong and unnecessary.
Things this novel made me do:
– Look up “Knickerbocker” on Wikipedia, resulting to lost hours reading about New York as a former Dutch colony.
– Use Google Maps to search for the crime scenes mentioned.
– Re-indulge my years-old Anderson Cooper-triggered fascination with the Vanderbilt clan.
– Trawl the internet for photos of young Theodore Roosevelt. Attractivess: affirmative.
So yeah. Thoroughly satifsying, an exemplary specimen of the mystery genre. Carr wrote a sequel to this, though conversations with a friend who has read it made me very leery of reading it. I just don’t want my good opinion of this book tarnished. Is that weird? Anyway, I feel that I’ll be coming back to this book when I need some comfort reading.