Sunday, September 18, 2016

Review of "The Alienist" by Caleb Carr

New York City in 1896 isn't the nicest place to live. Outside of the ritzy neighborhoods the apartment buildings are shabby, overcrowded, and smelly; the streets are dirty and dangerous; and whore houses of every kind are prolific and unregulated. Moreover criminals operate freely and government agencies and police are largely corrupt. To add to the city's problems a serial killer is murdering and mutilating children, mostly young boy prostitutes who dress up as girls. The murderer gouges out their eyes, cuts off their genitals and buttocks, leaves them in gruesome positions, and so on.

Enter Theodore Roosevelt, the new Police Commissioner of New York, who wants to route out police corruption. Roosevelt has dismissed some of the worst offenders and, in the face of strong opposition, is willing to use unorthodox methods to catch the child killer. Thus a rather unconventional secret investigative team is assembled, led by Dr. Laszlo Kreizler - a psychiatrist (or alienist as they were known at the time).

Laszlo's other team members are John Schuyler Moore, a newspaper reporter; Sara Howard, a would-be detective who's currently Roosevelt's secretary; and Detective Sergeants Marcus Isaacson and Lucius Isaacson, two talented and incorruptible cops. A couple of Kreizler's former patients also help out: Cyrus, a big black man who functions as a bodyguard and assistant; and young Stevie, a messenger and carriage driver.

Laszlo and his group are more or less distant precursors to the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit. They study psychology books and lectures to suss out how and why the perpetrator evolved into a vicious psychopath. The team also assembles clues by examining crime scenes, collecting fingerprints, interviewing witnesses, consulting old records, visiting places the killer may have lived, etc. Step by step, the team assembles a physical and psychological picture of the killer.

During their inquiries, the investigators are constantly followed, threatened, harassed, hampered, and even attacked. It seems that powerful forces in the city - including slumlords, businessmen, gang bosses, ex-cops, and religious leaders - don't want the child killings investigated. They fear widespread public awareness of the horrific crimes will rile up the populace and interfere with their money-making schemes. This of course is reprehensible, especially for churches.

The investigation is long and complex, and - though it isn't exactly boring - feels like a lot for the reader to slog through at times. We also gets a peek at how some wealthier New York residents live, with fine dining at Delmonico's; classy homes; luxe furnishings; servants; attendance at the opera; and so on.

Needless to say the team's hard work eventually pays off and leads to a dramatic climax.

The characters in the story are engaging and sufficiently fleshed out for a thriller. I especially liked tough, fearless, gun-toting Sara. She holds her own as the only female on the investigative team and, in fact, the only woman working in the police department - where most people think she doesn't belong. And I got a kick out of little Stevie, who's anxious to help and always cadging cigarettes despite numerous anti-smoking lectures from Lazslo. A jarring note in the story (for me) is a nebulous, unlikely romance that doesn't ring true.

Over all, a very good psychological thriller, recommended for fans of the genre.

Rating: 4.5 stars

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