I always love to see what other people are reading. On the subway, in the park, really anywhere. I also love bookshelves filled with books, and seeing other people’s collections. While I was traveling throughout the month of August, I stayed with a good friend of mine in Maine. I was staying in their very cute guest room, and was happy to see that they had a selection of books lined up on the dresser. I picked up The Alienist, a book I had started in high school but never got the chance to finish, and started reading.
I hadn’t gotten very far in the first go-round of reading The Alienist, but I remember thinking that it was a really good book. And upon rereading the beginning of the story I wasn’t disappointed. The Alienist follows the story of John Schuyler Moore, a newspaper journalist in 1896 New York as he, a psychologist, and a small group of detectives work to find a serial killer who is ravaging downtown Manhattan of its young boys.
The thing that kept me reading throughout the first chapter was Caleb Carr’s elegant writing style. As I kept reading, I found that he painted all his characters, whether they were big or small, with amazing detail.
The character of the alienist, a man named Lazlo Kreizler, works as a psychologist and has many used-to-be misfits working for him as personal servants. Carr gives each one of these characters an elaborate backstory that he shares with the reader, and each one plays their own part in the telling of the story.
Carr also has a very strong female character in Sara Howard, whose dream is to be the first female detective. Right from the bat it is clear that she is not someone to mess with, and we all know how I feel about strong female characters, especially in period pieces.
The narrator, Jacob Moore, reports the story retrospectively, as if it were one of his news pieces. This allows him to step back from the story and elaborate on some of the different elements of life such as various buildings that were being built at the time, the nature of mobs in the city, or how childhood was viewed during the late 19th century. This doesn’t slow down the fast paced plot however, and adds an element to the story that would be hard to get otherwise.
Carr paints a very gritty, very realistic view of New York City at the turn of the century. He doesn’t shy away from some of the darker, more disturbing elements of life in the city at this time, and some of his descriptions can be pretty graphic. He does do a good job, however, of showing the variety of life that New York had in the late 1800’s Kreizler and Moore travel from the slums of tenement housing to the opera, and everywhere in between.
Carr also intersperses the story with some real characters of the time such as J.P. Morgan, Jacob Riis, and Teddy Roosevelt, who was chief inspector of the police department at the time. The sites in New York are also very accurate for the time, and Carr really gets the grit of the city under his fingernails. I enjoyed reading another story about a place I know so well such as New York, but seeing it at a different time.
Probably the most interesting part of the story for me was how the murder was actually solved. The story starts out the way many mystery novels do, with finding a body. But since there are no actual clues for the police to go off of, the case is handed over to Kreizler the psychologist to see if he can make anything of it. Psychology at this time was a fairly new field, and one that was not widely accepted by the general public. Freud was alive and practicing at the time, but psychology wasn’t seen as a valuable science beyond the walls of a psychiatric hospital. This is addressed in the book when the mayor of New York confronts Kreizler about the case at the opera. He says,
…let me be plain. If you were to associate yourself with the Police Department in any capacity, Dorctor, it would constitute just such a way for our enemies to discredit us. Decent people have no use for your work, sir, for your abominable opinions of the American family, or for your obscene probing into the mind of American children. Such matters are the province of parents and their spiritual advisors. If I were you, I should limit my work to the lunatic asylums, where it belongs.
Psychology clearly was not a credited science at this point, and there has been much debate about it over the years. I enjoyed seeing how Carr used the psychology aspect of the book to drive the story. Much of the psychology used seemed to stem from Freud, with its focus on childhood, mothers, and sexual orientation etc., but in the end it was the psychology that solved the case. It was also interesting, in a similar light, to see how crime fighting was conducted at this time. There is a scene in the book where two of the men on Lazlo’s team ultimately explain that there is a new fangled way of seeing who has been at a crime scene – its called fingerprinting, and it might just work.
I was happy to see that The Alienist has a sequel, The Angel of Darkness, that follows the same team of crime fighters a few years later. I didn’t know about this sequel before and now I want to read it and see where the characters and the crimes go from there. Guess I will have to add it to my list of books to read!