I read The Alienist by Caleb Carr in January 2018. This review was originally posted on my Goodreads, but has since been edited and expanded upon.
The Alienist is a fascinating, creepy, compelling fiction about murders of child prostitutes in New York City in the early 20th century. After the first victim is found, a motley team forms to solve the crime: John Moore, journalist/illustrator who often works with the police; Sara Howard, first woman to work in her position with the NYPD; and Laszlo Kreizler, an alienist (what we would call a psychologist). With the help of several of Kreizler’s friends, they embark on a twisting investigation into some of New York City’s dark places, trying to prevent more deaths.
Oh, man, the characters in this book! Kreizler was probably my favorite — he is so complex. He is passionate about what he does, and his genuine concern and care is evident every step of the way. But he also can be so methodical and intense and sometimes dismissive of other people’s feelings. I was by turns fascinated, delighted, and pained because of him. A well-rounded man all in all. The others — Sara especially, but also Stevie, Cyrus, Mary, Marcus, and Lucius — were great too. The way these people play off each other was delightful. Carr shows skill in crafting distinct, realistic characters.
There are several real people who make appearances in this novel as well. Theodore Roosevelt (before he was President, of course) and J. P. Morgan add a layer to this tale: with them, this story is grounded more firmly in reality. Despite the fact that the details of the crime are not topics usually discussed back then — child prostitution, homosexuality, mental illness — the presence of such prominent figures make us remember all too keenly that these things were part of reality then too. And as far as I know, the real-person details in terms of personality and personal history were accurate.
The plot was paced well, and the unfolding of the mystery was gradual but intriguing and explored in satisfying depth. The crimes themselves reminded me of the Jack the Ripper murders of 1888 London, a clearly deliberate reference by Carr, as his narrator Moore is noted to have covered some of these cases during his time across the pond. Because of these similarities, The Alienist‘s tone is similar to that of a late 19th century detective story — scientific in method, haunting in mood. It almost feels as if this novel could have been written decades before it really was, in 1994.
Speaking of time, how Kreizler treats the mentally-ill (or, as it was called then, the alienated) was touching, but also historically significant. His home, where he takes in disturbed people to treat them, as well as his habit of assisting people who have been wrongfully accused or imprisoned, places this novel firmly within the context of the field of psychology but also in opposition to it. Kreizler, were he real, could be placed among the names Freud, Skinner, or Pavlov, even while he proves himself a kinder, more understanding man than any of them. Instead of the dirty, scream-wracked asylums in New York at the time, Kreizler’s home is more safe and nurturing. Freud would be startled, I think, to see that. This setting and viewpoint not only endear Kreizler to us, but also make a biting commentary of the stigmas mentally ill people have dealt with for centuries.
All that said, I did encounter some elements of this novel that prevented me from fully loving it, which is a shame, because I desperately wanted to. Most of my hesitance, though, is entirely my fault, as I discovered in reading this that I am more squeamish about certain things than I realized. I was disturbed by the circumstances of the case — young boys who have no choice to become prostitutes because of their socio-economic status are killed by an adult male predator. The murders are gruesome, as are some of the discoveries uncovered during the course of the investigation, and I cringed more than once. The thought of children not just being murdered, but being assaulted and raped, is horrible, and more than once throughout this book I found myself wishing that Kreizler and company were investigating something else.
Furthermore, the historical viewpoint of homosexuality, and that so many of the gay men present in this book also sleep with these young boys, upset me. It is, for me, a rather problematic stance on LGBT people, if indeed these men in this book can be classified as such. I would more closely call them pedophiles, but the fact that they are instead called “homosexuals” or “sodomites” blurs the line between the terms in an inaccurate, and — I imagine — an offensive way. I know the terminology perhaps reflects the historical view, but I kept wishing that there could be a positive representation of homosexuality in this book, even if that person or persons had to be closeted (as would have been necessary back then). Perhaps I have inflated this issue too much, but it was something that continually caught my eye throughout this novel.
That being said, The Alienist overall has EXCELLENT characters, strong writing, and is well-researched in terms of history and psychology. I fell in love with so many characters and was enraptured by the case even as it repelled me. The conclusion was intense, frightening, and satisfying. My heart broke at least twice and raced more times than I can count. Though I have sounded rather critical more than once in this review, I would love to read more of Carr’s work, especially his other novels featuring Kreizler. The characters are the best part of this book, and even if you come for the mystery, you will stay for the people.
Overall rating: 7.5/10 (but the characters and writing get 9.5/10)
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