The Alienist

The first thing I found remarkable about this book is the fact that I picked it up and started reading it in the first place. I’m definitely not a fan of the mystery genre, nor do I tend to read fiction of the crime, horror, thriller or suspense varieties. So for me, reading Caleb Carr’s The Alienist involved a jaunt into fairly unfamiliar-genre territory, right from the start. In the end, I think it was the soft, grainy, vintage photograph on the cover, evoking a strong and enticing sense of turn of the century New York city, that compelled me to pick up this book and see if it couldn’t capture my interest.

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 therefore known as alienists.

To give a brief synopsis without giving too much away, this book is set in New York city in 1896. Although the Ripper murders have already occurred in London, the concept of a serial killer is still almost completely foreign in the world of crime investigation. In fact, crime investigation is just on the cusp of moving into the modern era of forensic science, but its not quite there yet. And so, when a male, underage prostitute turns up brutally and ritualistically murdered, the only thing that’s clear is that usual suspects don’t apply. The crimes appear to have no traditional motive, and the killer appears to have no identifiable connection to his victims. Add to this the fact that the city authorities don’t even want to admit that gay/child prostitution even exists, and the plan seems to be to pretend the crime was never committed. However, the head of the newly founded police commission, designed to root out corruption and bring the police force into the 20th century, refuses to bow to political pressure or to ignore a seemlingly unsolveable crime. Side-stepping procedure, he assembles a team of experts and laymen to being an intensive investigation outside the official structure of law enforcement.

The Alienist by Caleb CarrWhat follows is a story that exceeded any expectations I could possibly have had, and by a long shot. I find it necessary to state that the characters are wonderfully realistic and compelling. The fact that they’re fully fleshed-out at all is worth noting, as this is an important element to any story that is too frequently overlooked in pulp and genre fiction. And more than this, the text is so very gripping because of the skillful and complex intertwining of a variety of stories and elements: the personal lives of the characters, the very distinct personality of turn-of-the-century New York city (and the parallel underworld, which is simulataneously seedy and fascinating), the introduction of new scientific methods of forensic crime scene investigation, the development of the fledgling field of psychology, and ultimately what is essentially the invention of the contemporary concept of profiling.

That said, I’m not entirely convinced that this book was marketed correctly. In case you, like me, are prone to judging a book by its cover, let’s take a moment to explore (and if necessary, debunk) the blurbs and synposes that adorn the covers of this volume:

A first-rate tale of crime and punishment that will keep readers guessing until the final pages.

I would have to call this inaccurate. It makes it sound like this novel follow the traditional mystery format: a crime is committed, there is a list of suspects, the detectives hunt down clues and narrow down the list until a single suspect can be proven guilty. But what makes this book unique within the genre is that it’s quite the opposite. A series of horrific crimes are being committed, but the team trying to track down the killer have absolutely no suspects. There’s no guessing, because there’s no list of suspects from which to guess. Unlike traditional mystery novels, the reader doesn’t get to try to ‘figure out’ the mystery before the detective — we have to follow the investigative team to the conclusion of their investigation.

You can smell the fear in the air.

What happened here, did someone steal this quote from a Steven King review? This book isn’t scary, unless the very concept of serial killings is your particular panic button. The story is told from the point of view of a narrator who is largely safe, and of course since we are seeing things through his eyes, we are never present for any of those moments of terror whose aftermath our heroes are investigating. Certainly there’s suspense, and depending on your level of desensitization, there may well be horror, but by and large this is not a scary book. If anything, it reminds me of the film Sneakers — it’s about a team of very intelligent, innovative people using their various skills and areas of expertise to solve a seemingly unsolveable mystery, with the added pressure that the longer they take, the higher the body count.

Harrowing, Fastinating… Will please fans of Ragtime and The Silence of the Lambs.

OK, I can see the comparison to Silence of the Lambs (not having read Ragtime), but I think the reason this story transcends that book — which I’ve always felt was highly overrated — is because there is literally no formula or procedure to follow in the course of the investigation. From the forensic crime scene investigation methods to the slow, meticulous creation of an ‘imaginary man’ (what we would now call a profile), the reader is witnessing not only the path to solving this particular crime, but indeed the creation of a blueprint for solving any crime of this particular variety. Add to that the other carefully crafted historical nuances, and the book entertains and fascinates on a much higher level.

Step into another time –

And an unforgettable terror.

The year is 1896. The city is New York.

The hunt is on for a baffling new kind of criminal…

A serial killer.

All in all, that’s a pretty apt teaser for the book. Plays up the terror, downplays the fairly cerebral nature of this book, but it still captures the atmosphere quite nicely in a rather concise five-line precis.

However, if you’re going to judge The Alienist by its cover, I would suggest instead focusing on the photo, which is probably the most accurate indicator of both the atmosphere and the style of the story within. But even more so, I would urge you to pick up a copy and read it for yourself. It’s not revoluntionary fiction, but its consistently entertaining and I would suggest it’s one of the better examples of its type.

From the archives, written way back on November 1st of 2003.

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