The Alienist has been on my TBR practically since I joined Goodreads ten years ago. I no longer remember whose review or what list prompted me to add this book. (But thank you, whoever you were! I really liked it!) I had this book on my TBR so long that it almost didn’t make it through several TBR purges. I distinctly remember being on the verge of deleting it at least twice, and then re-reading the blurb or something else made me change my mind, and I kept it. I finally happened upon a used copy at Bookmans a little under a year ago and bought it, so at that point I was committed. Then the TV show came out, and it was basically a sign from the universe that I needed to finally read this book. (Seriously, I think it was #35 on my TBR when I started it. And that’s out of 1,705.)
So an alienist has nothing to do with aliens. An alienist in turn of the century New York City was an early term for someone who practiced psychology or psychiatry, back when those things were very much not understood by the general population. It’s 1896, and our alienist is Dr. Laszlo Kriezler, who currently runs his own institute, where he frequently helps people (including criminals, three of whom he has helped and then taken into his employ), to the suspicion of nearly everyone. Kriezler is an acquaintance of our narrator, newspaper reporter John Schuyler Moore, and of Teddy Roosevelt, who at that time was police commissioner. Under Roosevelt’s aegis, the two of them build a team to embark on something that has never been done before: to use Kriezler’s field of knowledge to attempt to catch a criminal. A killer is stalking New York City, murdering young boys, and this sort of repetitive killing doesn’t yet have a name.
This is actually just as much historical fiction as it is a mystery/thriller about a team trying to catch a serial killer. Carr is a historian, so this makes sense. His portrayal of Gilded Age New York feels so real. All the historical detail and the atmosphere it creates was honestly my favorite part of the book. I’ve seen a lot of reviews call the book “slow,” and I guess I can see where they’re coming from, but for me nearly all of my enjoyment came from just sinking in to the world Carr was recreating, and eliminating those details in favor of a faster pace would have taken away the savor, I think. This time period is fascinating. Gilded Age New York was famously corrupt, and this book is set right in the middle of the clean-up, and it’s a turning point for modern thought as well. I found it absolutely fascinating to watch the team encounter things we take for granted, like fingerprinting, and have them be so new and revolutionary.
The book is also very progressive. By that I mean that its characters, though all holding pretty traditional, non-radical ideas by our standards, are progressive for their own times. The book does not sensationalize or blame the boy victims, either, who are almost all child prostitutes. All of the characters, and the narrative, show compassion and take great care to view them as whole human beings, and to contextualize their experiences.
There was one part where I did think the book went too far. SPOILERS Carr resorts to killing off not one, which I might have forgiven, but two lovable characters, seemingly only to raise the stakes. I was mad when Kriezler’s maid, Mary, was killed by the thugs, but I was pissed when he killed off the boy, Joseph, whom John had befriended in the course of the investigation. I get that the investigation needed to have consequences, but it was too much for me. I’m still angry END SPOILERS.
All in all, very glad I finally read this. And there’s a sequel! No idea if it’s as good as this one. Oh, and apparently Carr is working on a third book as I type this, after having been away from the series for over twenty years.
CBR Bingo: White Whale (Review that book you keep meaning to read but haven’t until now.)