book review: the alienist

The Alienist by Caleb Carr
Random House, 496 pp.
Published March 15, 1994

The Alienist

Summary (via Goodreads): The year is 1896. The city is New York. Newspaper reporter John Schuyler Moore is summoned by his friend Dr. Laszlo Kreizler—a psychologist, or “alienist”—to view the horribly mutilated body of an adolescent boy abandoned on the unfinished Williamsburg Bridge. From there the two embark on a revolutionary effort in criminology: creating a psychological profile of the perpetrator based on the details of his crimes. Their dangerous quest takes them into the tortured past and twisted mind of a murderer who will kill again before their hunt is over.

Fast-paced and riveting, infused with historical detail, The Alienist conjures up Gilded Age New York, with its tenements and mansions, corrupt cops and flamboyant gangsters, shining opera houses and seamy gin mills. It is an age in which questioning society’s belief that all killers are born, not made, could have unexpected and fatal consequences.

My thoughts: High expectations may have worked against The Alienist for me. Being a fan of both mysteries and historical fiction, Carr's novel hovered on the edge of my radar for quite a while; the forthcoming TV series convinced me to finally pick it up, since my usual preference is to read a book before watching its adaptation. What I found between the covers didn't quite match up with what I anticipated, however, which translated into disappointment.

Police reporter Moore narrates the action using a framing device, recollecting events of more than 20 years prior. He functions as the Watson to Dr. Kreizler's Holmes: intelligent, but often caught just behind the curve. His perspective ensures the reader also gets her share of surprises along the way, as well as a great deal of extraneous detail. Factual asides litter the pages, giving the histories of neighborhoods, buildings, and families with varying degrees of impact to the story as a whole. At times these side-notes feel like the literary equivalent of "surprise veggies" in your macaroni and cheese.

In his afterword, Mr. Carr mentions his primary love of history, the difficulty he faced publishing some of his more extreme opinions, and the idea that historical fiction could satisfy his desire for both research and big concepts. One cannot deny that The Alienist is meticulously researched; late 19th century New York City brims off the page in all its grimy detail. Yet long before the crime is solved, these details start to bog down the narrative, bloating the page count without contributing much additional meaning. Mr. Carr goes to great pains describing the city's geography, particularly with respect to the killer's activity, yet he does not include a map for the reader to consult. It's a surprising omission, considering the amount of work that must have gone into researching the time period.

While Moore makes for a generally suitable guide, many of the supporting characters are held at arm's length, which makes it difficult to agonize over their fates. Given the close quarters in which the investigative team works, it's disappointing that there weren't more excuses to delve deeper into each of their lives.

Parallels between the upbringing of one protagonist and the killer slowly emerge over the course of the story. They remain underdeveloped, though, despite their promise. In fact, the most developed character in the ensemble vanishes for a portion of the novel, exposing shortcomings that were more easily glossed over during their involvement.

By the time I'd finished The Alienist it felt like so much wasted potential. My rating reflects some of my expectations about what could have been: the central mystery and slow-developing parallels between killer and investigator both paid off in places, with a great deal more left unexplored. History buffs will appreciate the level of detail that accompanies the hunt and, in all likelihood, won't notice any effect on the pacing. For readers who like their mysteries lean and brisk, The Alienist offers as many yawns as chills.

RATING: ★★ ½

This book was one of my twelve selections (or two alternates) for the 2018 TBR Pile Challenge. You can read more about the challenge and follow my progress here.

Check out my other Book of the Month reviews here!

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