Ahoy there me mateys! For those of ye who are new to me log, a word: though this log’s focus is on sci-fi, fantasy, and young adult, this Captain does have broader reading tastes. Occasionally I will share some novels that I enjoyed that are off the charts (a non sci-fi, fantasy, or young adult novel), as it were. So today I bring ye a historical fiction title:
the alienist (Caleb Carr)
Except this review has a twist. The First Mate and I both read this one! We discussed the book and I enjoyed his viewpoint so I
ordered asked him to write a review. So you get one from me and a bonus additional review from me crew. Please note that I write like I talk and the First Mate writes like he thinks. Hope you enjoy!
From the Captain:
I read this over 20 years ago. It was a five star read. I don’t remember many details about the plot anymore. It remains a five star read in me noggin though. Arrrrr!
From the First Mate:
Though The Alienist was published in 1994, I’m almost certain that I didn’t become aware of it until the early 00s. I have a very distinct memory of reading one of those “books that should be made into movies” lists that touted The Alienist as “Teddy Roosevelt and a psychologist solve a serial murder spree in 1890s NYC.” It sounded like something I’d like, and yet I didn’t pick it up. And then, about a decade later, the Captain put a paperback copy of it into my hands and said that I had to read it. But it just sat on my shelf, and I just never brought myself around to reading it. And a decade after that, well, I picked it up and read the damn thing. Finally.
Two things about the novel became obvious very quickly, 1) the description I had been given was erroneous (Teddy, while a significant character, is not a main character), and 2) the serial killer being chased is a pedophiliac preying upon male child prostitutes. Every time someone recommended the book to me, they mentioned Teddy Roosevelt and failed to mention pedophiliac child murders. It’s entirely possible that I would’ve been even less interested in reading this book if I’d know more about what type of book it was.
All that said, The Alienist is an extremely well written and well researched novel that’s full of very interesting characters and paints an incredibly unflattering portrait of 1890s New York City. The two main characters, alienist Laszlo Kreizler and crime reporter John Moore, are fully realized, complex, and compelling in both their strengths and weaknesses. With an assist from the newly appointed police commissioner, Theodore Roosevelt, Laszlo and Moore assemble a team comprised entirely of people at the margins (the first female NYC police officer, twin Jewish detectives, several former patients of Laszlo) who, due to their being outside the mainstream of that particular society, are able to bring perspectives to the investigation that the regular police are unable and unwilling to. The manner in which the team attempts to solve the murders is by forming a psychological profile of the killer.
While the method and structure of Laszlo and Moore’s investigation in some ways follows along the path set up by the first two Thomas Harris Hannibal Lecter novels (the team figures out what makes the killer kill while the bodies pile up), reading The Alienist actually made me think a lot about Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Laszlo is very much the van Helsing of The Alienist and he’s able to bring a sensibility to the proceedings that is foreign to the rest of the team. As with Dracula, the serial killer here brings elements that are decidedly non-urban that confuse the police and the populace at large. While the various team members go on investigatory missions, the bulk of the investigation happens in one room with the various team members talking to one another. And their discussions are fascinating.
The Alienist does come with some significant negatives. As said, it’s a novel that is centered on pedophiliac child murder, which is a rough topic even though there is no graphic sex in the novel itself. This is a predominantly male novel, with one of the only two main female characters being effectively mute. The investigation takes a few turns that drag a bit, which does take its toll in a nearly 500 page novel. The portrayal of the grimier aspects of 1890s NYC and the corruption of its police force probably was more effective in 1994 than in 2020 due to a lot of the same type of material making its way into quality pop non-fiction books that have come out in recent years (The Poisoner’s Handbook and The Radium Girls being ones that jump to mind). And, unfortunately, the ending is not entirely satisfying.
Probably the primary reason to read this novel is that Carr is very talented at beautifully describing the depressing and scary world in which the story takes place. Because the story is backed by solid research, one is left with the belief that the reality of 1890s NYC might not have been far from what is described.
Recommended to anyone who enjoys gritty, turn of last century crime stories. This is one of the better ones. Definitely avoid if your hard-nos include child prostitution and/or novels with a 99% male cast.
Goodreads has this to say about the novel:
When The Alienist was first published in 1994, it was a major phenomenon, spending six months on the New York Times bestseller list, receiving critical acclaim, and selling millions of copies. This modern classic continues to be a touchstone of historical suspense fiction for readers everywhere.
The year is 1896. The city is New York. Newspaper reporter John Schuyler Moore is summoned by his friend Dr. Laszlo Kreizler—a psychologist, or “alienist”—to view the horribly mutilated body of an adolescent boy abandoned on the unfinished Williamsburg Bridge. From there the two embark on a revolutionary effort in criminology: creating a psychological profile of the perpetrator based on the details of his crimes. Their dangerous quest takes them into the tortured past and twisted mind of a murderer who will kill again before their hunt is over.
Fast-paced and riveting, infused with historical detail, The Alienist conjures up Gilded Age New York, with its tenements and mansions, corrupt cops and flamboyant gangsters, shining opera houses and seamy gin mills. It is an age in which questioning society’s belief that all killers are born, not made, could have unexpected and fatal consequences.
To visit the author’s website go to:
To buy the novel visit:
To add to Goodreads go to: