A review written by John D.
John’s quick take:
An excellent psychological thriller that is woven around many real-life people and events. A terrifying serial killer is stalking a very realistic 1896 New York City - and the only way to catch him is to create a new science of psychological profiling. Imagine Silence of the Lambs set in a time before computers and automobiles, when psychology is mostly regarded as “gobbledygook”.
I rarely read books that have made the bestseller lists, but when I found this in a charity shop for a few cents, I couldn’t resist. It seemed like a mashup of Silence of the Lambs (which is an excellent book) and Jack the Ripper (whose story I’ve always found endlessly fascinating).
It is 1896 and New York City’s police commissioner (a pre-presidential Theodore Roosevelt) is struggling to get to grips with the horrifically brutal murder of a pre-teen male prostitute. It doesn’t help that the local police force is thoroughly corrupt and society isn’t even prepared to accept the existence of such prostitutes. Indeed, most of the establishment is quite happy to maintain a status quo in which it really doesn’t care what happens to the masses of destitute people in the city, many of which are recent immigrants.
Unable to rely on either his own police force or traditional detective methods, Roosevelt turns to Laszlo Kreizler, a friend from University who has become a leader in the much-maligned fledgling science of psychology. In secret Kreizler forms a small team which is tasked with trying to understand, predict and identify the killer. Using a combination of painstaking detective work, analysis and profiling, the team attempts to re-create the killer’s history and to track him down. But they are working under tremendous time pressure, as the killer strikes again and again.
There is so much to like about this book. It has an intriguing storyline, the plot is nicely complex with many twists and turns, the author has constructed an extremely detailed and realistic picture of historic New York City, the characters are well developed and interesting, and the book is exciting and fast-paced. I raced through the 600 pages in double-quick time.
I did particularly like the historic backdrop that Carr created. He has gone to great lengths to develop a detailed and nuanced view of what the city was like at the end of the nineteenth century, including the various strata of society, living conditions, geography, and social and political tensions. In part he does this by building real-life characters and events into his story. A young Theodore Roosevelt is one of the main characters in the story, but along the way we also get introduced to people like J. P. Morgan, Anthony Comstock, the gangster Paul Kelly, and the journalist Jacob Riis.
On top of that solid factual foundation Carr has developed a gripping psychological thriller - Kreizler’s team are up against a terrifically constructed killer. Throughout the book you find out more and more details about him, and even end up with some level of pity for him despite his horrendous crimes. The murders themselves are extremely gruesome, but don’t feel gratuitous in the context of this story.
And why, you might ask, is the book called The Alienist? As the author explains – “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”. So the book even has a super-cool title.
I enjoyed this book a lot and rate it a rare 4.5 stars. If you like nice, dark, well-constructed historic thrillers, then you will love this book.
Trade Paperback; Random House; October 24, 2006; Pages: 512 – originally published in 1994.
Although no author’s webpage could be found here is a website which looks informative about the author and his books. http://17thstreet.net/