Page Turners

The Mystery Hodgepodge of the Alienist



I certainly have been on a bit of a run with mystery novels lately. I’m not sure exactly why, or if it’s just shaken out that the novels I’ve been most interested in lately have been twisty tales of crime. And, after the gritty and depressing realism of The Force I figured I needed a palate cleanser. So, of course, I decided to check out a historical fiction novel about a group of people trying to track down a gruesome serial killer in turn of the century New York. You know, easy reading before bedtime. Caleb Carr’s the Alienist has been on my radar for quite some time, since it has a reputation as one of the best serial killer mysteries of all time, and when I learned that they’re adapting the novel into an upcoming mini-series I decided it was finally time to jump in. And I’ve got to say, it’s a hell of a novel. Caleb Carr’s background as a historian and professor comes through with this novel, plunging you into the exceedingly well-researched and described world of New York in 1896. Although, I will say, for whatever reason, I had a hell of time not envisioning everyone speaking in cockney accents throughout this whole novel. I don’t know why the presence of stage-coaches and gas-light create a mental block on American accents, but I guess that’s just my cross to bear. But aside from that weird mental glitch, this is a phenomenal novel.

The Alienist is a tale told to us by journalist and social gadfly John Moore. It all begins when he’s brought to a crime scene by two of his college friends, renowned by controversial psychologist Laszlo Kreizler and police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt. Moore assumed that this was to get a story, but when he gets to the scene he finds the victim is a boy prostitute who has been viciously disemboweled and mutilated.  And this isn’t the first case that the New York police have found. It’s been kept under wraps, partly because no one cares about what happens to these boys or want to discuss the men who frequent them, but Roosevelt cannot abide it any longer. So he’s secretly given Kreizler reign to solve this crime, and Kreizler believes that Moore will be of great help to him. So Moore and Kreizler begin investigating these murders, grappling with the idea of a serial killer and building a psychological profile of the killer, something that’s never been done. Along the way they pick up several more teammates, the brilliant but ignored Sara Howard who has become the first female employee of the NYPD, and Marcus and Lucius Isaacson the brother detectives who have great respect for the newest trends in police-work.

This team begins investigating the crimes, slowly but surely building a mental image of their killer in the hopes that that will help find him. They discover he only kills boy-whores, he only does it near religious holidays, he seems to be able to climb out window and up the sides of buildings, he has facial tics, and dozens of other aspects that finally begin to point them down the right path. Along the way they have to deal with some impediments to their quest, and not just from the killer. They deal with the owners of the various boy-prostitute clubs who don’t want this secret out, the rest of the police department who don’t approve of Kreizler’s methods, and a coalition of “decent” citizens led by JP Morgan who don’t want this story leaking out and spreading the filthy idea that serial killers and boy prostitutes exist. But despite all of that, and after a lot of hard work, some further loss of life, and trips around the country, they finally find their man, a broken shell of a man with a past of sexual abuse who has built his life around punishing those weaker than him. And, while it doesn’t turn out exactly as Kreizler was hoping, the killer is stopped, and the team’s methods are lauded, creating a precedent for future crime-fighting.

I really loved this book. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of serial killers, and especially the lengths that law enforcement have to go through to track them down. And adding in a fascinating time-period piece that gave us the addition of fun historical figures like Teddy Roosevelt and JP Morgan is certainly a bonus. I also really enjoy all of the psychological profiling in this story, even though historically it probably doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, primarily due to my past of majoring in psychology. But the thing that really clicked for me in this novel is the fact that it seemed to be a pretty great blending of everything I love about the mystery genre. With the stage-coaches and time-period we get a great Sherlock Holmes aesthetic. There’s a truly great serial killer profiling story going on that felt like Silence of the Lambs. They handle a great procedural drama with the inner-workings of the police department. And it even gets a kind of noir tinge to it, what with them pounding the pavement and journeying from the depths of the tenements to the highs of JP Morgan’s house, and everywhere in between. This story took everything I love from several different sub-genres of mystery, and blended it together into a damn near perfect novel.


The Alienist was written by Caleb Carr and published by Random House, 1994.

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