Thursday, December 30, 2010

REVIEW: The Alienist by Caleb Carr

This is one of those half-read books that have been cluttering up my bedside for quite some time now, part of a pile that threatens daily to topple over and bury my poor little Jack Russell Terrier – who would, no doubt, set to tearing apart her literary tomb with fierce abandon, causing me to undoubtedly lose my place several times over!

With the holidays bestowing upon me a week of sleeping in, I’ve been catching up on some of these half-reads. Some are destined to be half-read forever (although they have successfully migrated to the donation box), others I quickly polished off (and just as quickly forgot), and a select few stuck with me long enough to make their way downstairs to breakfast . . . and, in some cases, through lunch and dinner as well.

Caleb Carr’s The Alienist is one of the latter. It’s absolutely an engrossing read, but not what I would call an easy one. For one, it’s a first-person narrative, which somehow demands a bit more from the reader, forcing us to fill in the blanks and interpret what the narrator can’t know. Also, it’s full of archaic language, terms, and behaviours that serve to solidly establish the reader in turn-of-the-century New York, but which require a few chapters worth of dedication before a comfortable flow is established. Lastly, it’s a rather grim and gruesome tale that all but challenges and dares the reader to come along, rather than inviting us into the story.

The story itself is set in the nearly unrecognizable New York City of 1896 where a serial killer – a term not yet invented – is brutally murdering young, transvestite boy prostitutes. With neither the public nor the police interested in lives or deaths of these young ‘abominations’ to society, there is very little incentive to investigate.

Fortunately, Dr. Lazlo Kreizler has taken notice of the similarities between the murders and has chosen to investigate himself. A new (and generally distasteful) breed of doctor, Kreizler is a psychiatrist (or an Alienist), dedicated to the study of those with mental disorders who are alienated from proper society. In many ways, he is a precursor to the likes of Jason Gideon and David Rossi (despite comments to the contrary, this book is more Criminal Minds than CSI), just as eccentric, and just as misunderstood.

Like any good profiler, of course, he is backed and protected by someone in authority (in this case, a young NYPD Commissioner named Theodore Roosevelt), and supported by a well-rounded team. Assisting Kreizler with his investigation is Sara Howard (one of the first women in law enforcement), the Isaacson brothers (sibling policemen fascinated by the newly emerging sciences of crime scene investigation), Cyrus Montrose and Stevie Taggert (convicted murderers, defended by Kreizler’s arguments and released into his care), and our narrator, John Moore (New York Times journalist).

In many ways, the experience of the book is one of learning and discovery. It’s not just another police procedural padded with criminal profiling and crime scene investigations – it’s a story about how those arts and sciences were first developed, applied, and perfected through trial and error (even while being ridiculed and rejected by society). What’s perhaps most exciting about it is that the story never develops quite how you expect, and certainly does not follow the formula of its contemporary works of fiction. Yes, there are the usual red herrings, but more often than not it’s the imperfect science of profiling that leads us astray.

I don’t want to spoil the read, so the only thing I’ll say about the killer is that for somebody who spends most of the book off-the-page, a theoretical profile rather than a flesh-and-blood figure, he is surprisingly well-developed. Not that you ever feel any real sympathy towards him, but we do come to understand him (and his choice of victims) very well before the end.

Definitely a fantastic read, provided you have the patience to settle into its style, and the free time to allow the book to draw you in. It’s not the type of book you can whip out to read a quick chapter on a coffee break, but that’s not always a bad thing. Sometimes we really do want that deeper, more difficult read, since the reward is always the sweeter for the effort we put into reaching the end.

1 comment:

  1. Agreed - fantastic read, I read it several years ago and have since bought it as gifts for several friends.

    Unfortunately the author peaked with this one, I tried other stuff he wrote and none of it kicked for me.