Review: The Alienist by Caleb Carr

New York City, 1896. A serial killer is on the loose, gruesomely preying upon cross-dressing boy prostitutes. Police detectives are making no progress solving the ghastly crimes. In fact, someone with power or influence seems to be bent on silencing witnesses and thwarting any investigation. Reform-minded police commissioner, and future president Theodore Roosevelt is determined to catch the killer and assembles an unconventional group of investigators headed by “alienist” Dr. Lazlo Kreizler. In the 19th century, when psychology was in its infancy, the mentally ill were considered “alienated” from themselves and society, and the experts who treated them were known as “alienists.”

Review by Erastes

A real meaty read this – about 500-600 pages in paperback and all of them worth reading, it gripped me from start to finish, and for my money it deserved its 25 weeks in the Publishers Weekly bestsellers chart.

It’s not a “gay historical” per se – none of the main characters are gay, but young male prostitutes are being killed so it does offer a fascinating insight into a culture that is not much written about.

What makes it compelling reading is the “serial profiling is in its infancy” (that and just about ALL the modern policing techniques that the team use, like fingerprinting, time of death and all the things CSI take for granted.)

It’s really gruesome, as would be expected. Carr doesn’t flinch from his descriptions, and of course anyone who watches modern crime dramas won’t find this a problem in the slightest. There’s also a lot – a LOT of chat., which I loved, but someone wanting non-stop Dan Brown action won’t appreciate that. Although there’s a lot of tearing around in landaus and barouches and hansoms, it’s not fast paced as a modern thriller and neither should it be, either.

The killer leaves very little in the way of clues; no-one’s seen him, and the boys are seemingly snatched out of locked rooms. It’s how the team piece the case together that makes this a fascinating read, and for me to applaud it as a magnificent work of fiction.

The characters are all vivid and believable. From Lazlo, the Alienist himself, John Moore the journalist, Miss Howard, the bluestocking who takes a post as secretary in the hopes of being the first woman detective, the two Jewish forensic scientists and three members of Lazlo’s household. I identified with them all and wished them well (although doubting they’d all make it through the book unscathed)

As a historical author I can only sit here with my jaw dropped in envy. The research that this book must have taken must have been staggering. It’s not just a matter of learning 19th century police techniques, but there’s obvious intelligence about the whole psychology behind serial murders and the Alienists who study them. Then there’s an indepth knowledge of the powder keg of New York socio-politics and a clear picture of a city on the edge; dragging itself from incipient corruption into a more enlightened age. Add on rich descriptions of buildings and streets that are no longer there, what’s being built, who runs which district, gangs and thugs and whore-houses…. The list is endless and I am in awe.

Very cleverly too, it teases the reader with red-herrings, which,being a red-herring phile I followed to conclusion every time. Highly enjoyable.

If you enjoy crime fiction, and are one of the four people in the world who hasn’t read this, then I recommend it heartily.

Amazon UK Amazon USA

6 Responses

  1. Yes, I read this years ago when it first came out, even gave a copy to my therapist at the time but all to no avail, haha! It was a truly memorable. His next one, ‘Angel of Darkness’ was ok for the street scenes of old New York but as a novel was so-so. Thanks for bringing it back…


  2. And I don’t recall it being so thick, 250 pages I think. Though ‘Angel of Darkess’ was immense …


  3. The paperback is certainly that thick, perhaps the hardback was thinner.

  4. Wow, you’re right! I just looked it up at 512 pages…It’s a great book, didn’t seem that long at all. The reading went fast and held me all the way.

    I stand corrected, thank you, Mykola

  5. I don’t remember it being that long either! I do recall burning through it rather quickly. Thanks for reminding me about it.

  6. I read this book a very long time ago. I picked out the paperback mainly because it was so long. I stayed with the book for the story. I recall that I enjoyed it very much and, having been reminded of that, I intend to read it again.

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