The Alienist, Caleb Carr

Bantam, 1994, 599 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-57299-7

These days, it seems that everyone loves a good serial killer thriller. A criminal type ideally suited to the needs of fiction (ie; “he has killed before… and will kill again until our heroes stop him!”), the rise in dramatic popularity of the serial killer can also find its roots in the rise of real-world cases of such criminals. While it would be foolish to maintain that the serial killer is a wholly modern creation, it does seems as if the late twentieth-century has been a breeding ground for them. You can most probably name half a dozen off the top of your head without breaking a sweat.

You could blame many factors for this recrudescence (I’m arguing for easier transportation, media coverage, broken families and MTV myself) but the problem has become so relatively commonplace that modern police science now features a special area of expertise called “profiling”. You can read John Douglas’s Journey into Darkness for details, but profiling codifies all that’s been learned from past experience with criminal behavior and tries to fit this knowledge with known details from repeat offenders in the hope to learn about the criminal and predict his actions.

Profiling as an accurate tool only took off in the 1970s, but criminals have been with us far longer. It only takes a little imagination to wonder when was the earliest time we could have conceived of profiling and applied it to a serial murderer. That’s essentially what Caleb Carr does in The Alienist, taking us to 1896 New York City.

Our narrator is John Moore, a journalist dragged more or less willingly in the hunt for a child murderer. The main character, however, is someone else; Laszlo Kreizler, a gifted alienist (psychologist) who, well in advance of his time, is making headway on the science of profiling.

The book is quick to hook us by an efficient introduction to the crimes and the team of investigators that will track down the perpetrator. (Including the requisite proto-feminist tough-girl character just so to acknowledge political correctness) New York City is a fascinating place, today or a hundred years ago, and Carr’s skill at representing the pre-skyscraper city without pedantry is one of his most laudable accomplishments.

This is not a novel that will put you to sleep. Despite the historical setting, Carr is deliciously modern in his pacing, and compelling scenes flash by at a fast clip. One annoyance, though; Carr loves cliffhanger chapter endings, so don’t plan on reading “just another chapter”, because the changes are that you’ll just keep going. Which, depending on whether you have to wake up early the following morning, might not be a bad thing.

I had the chance to curse my lack of knowledge of historical America once more while reading The Alienist, because even though the book is perfectly understandable without a history degree, there are a fair number of celebrity cameos (J.P. Morgan, Theodore Roosevelt, etc…) that hint at a superior level of enjoyment for gaslight period buffs.

But don’t worry; the only requirement to relish The Alienist is a love of good thrillers. Avid readers of crime fiction will get an extra kick of reading about the protagonists’ effort at developing proto-profiling decades before the actual event. There is an undeniable intellectual appeal to witness the investigators pieces together clues and obscure reference to eventually come at a correct answer, even if the “poor abused killer” shtick isn’t new, even a hundred years ago. It’s also a bit of a letdown when the resolution is enacted in a violent Hollywoodish manner, but that, of course, is hardly the point of the book.

It’s hard to oversell Caleb Carr’s The Alienist. Not only does it succeed on a conceptual level, giving us an original premise and an ambitious scope, but it also gets the more mundane elements correctly; the scenes, characters and the writing keeps our interest. Perhaps more successful as the sum of its parts than a die-hard crime thriller or social history, but still: Grrreat book; don’t miss it.

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