Are you a history geek? Do you know and love New York City? Do you always enjoy a good mystery?

If you answered yes to any or all of the above, then The Alienist is a novel you must read.

Set in 1896 New York, during Theodore Roosevelt’s tenure as the city’s Police Commissioner, The Alienist follows the search for a serial killer in the city’s corrupt, dangerous underworld. Joining Roosevelt in the investigation are crime reporter John Moore, ahead-of-their-time detectives Lucius and Marcus Isaacson, secretary and first female NYPD employee Sara Howard, former mental patients Stevie Taggert and Cyrus, and title character Laszlo Kreizler, a brilliant and controversial psychiatrist. As author Caleb Carr explains, psychiatrists were known as alienists before the 20th century because of the belief that the mentally ill were “alienated not only from society but from their own true natures.”

Caleb Carr does an excellent job creating a portrait of late 19th century New York City. It is fascinating to read of a New York without many of the iconic buildings and institutions that are such a huge part of our image of the city today. Carr also doesn’t shy away from the violence and depravity that characterized life for so many New Yorkers in that era; in the world he recreates, it isn’t hard to believe that the serial killer at the center of this novel could elude capture for so long. The Alienist is especially enjoyable for anyone with strong knowledge of New York and its history; you will find yourself engrossed in where the characters end up on their search, and you might even figure out a thing or two before it is revealed.

Though this particular story is fictional, it’s also interesting to read about a criminal investigation in a time when scientific evidence and criminal psychology were considered both innovative and outrageous. It offers some insights into how the investigative procedures we see today on TV shows like Law & Order and CSI came into being. Kreizler’s insights into the criminal mind are especially readable and much deeper than one would usually expect in a book that is essentially a thriller.

While this is primarily a plot-driven novel without great character depth, Laszlo Kreizler is a very compelling figure, and the novel is at its best when he’s involved. Though he could have easily been written as the typical brooding, mysterious, haunted-by-the-past male character, Carr successfully balances these qualities with intelligence and kind-heartedness. Kreizler’s scientific fascination with the case, and with the human mind in general, is equaled by a genuine concern for potential victims and the many other people he has helped in his work. He is the kind of character that leads the reader to musing who would play him in a film adaptation (personally, I think a younger Alan Rickman type would be perfect).

I only have two significant criticisms of The Alienist. One of them is the character of Sara Howard. While I admired her determination to be an independent woman and to hold her own in a field usually reserved to men at the time, I thought sometimes she was trying too hard to be defiant and to be “one of the boys,” which made her seem awkward and insecure rather than strong. Since the case involves child prostitutes and homosexuality, I found the characters’ seemingly liberal views on the latter unrealistic for the time period. While their compassion for the slain boys from the “disorderly houses” certainly makes sense, most of these characters, were this a real case, probably still would have expressed some repulsion at the prevalence of homosexuality in Manhattan’s seedier institutions.

While it’s not exactly a criticism, and it isn’t something that bothered me, it’s also worth noting that this novel can get very violent and gruesome, so I don’t recommend it for anyone who can’t handle that kind of thing.

These quibbles aside, The Alienist is a first-rate thriller that will especially intrigue anyone interested in New York City history or criminal psychology. I look forward to reading its follow-up, The Angel of Darkness, and will be sure to review that here as well.

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