The Alienist by Caleb Carr

This book was one of those numerous reads when you like the book being fully aware of its weaknesses. I read this book in the aftermath of the discussion of Drood. I was advised to read the novel to see how good a historical mystery book could be by some readers who were not fully satisfied by Drood. Now having the reading experience of both those big novels under my belt I personally believe that Drood is a much better novel than The Alienist. It is all a matter of subjective interpretation, but Drood appeals to a more high-brow reading audience, whileThe Alienist is more of an ‘omnivore’, mainstream book. Anyway, the book by Carr is still an entertaining read, and I believe it actually deserves 3.5 stars.
The setting of the novel is New York, last years of the 19th century. That locality alongside the genre allows us to see the fascinating and gruesome subculture and ‘sublayers’ of New York, its numerous tenebrous criminal dens, grottoes and even whole blocks of life which are usually ignored and blotted out by the well-established middle class.
Being a historical novel set in the late nineteenth century any author would feel obliged to dilute his/her discourse with some words and phrases which are easily recognized for their linguistically obsolete nature. Carr does a wonderful job adding successfully to his narrative a delightful and appropriate mixture of archaic words and phrases as well as a healthy amount of professional terms and jargons. This careful linguistic research gives a certain professional credit to his characters. Most of his descriptions of criminal sites are gritty, graphic, and painfully realistic. I would say that accurate and apt wording is possibly one of the strongest sides in the novel.
The introduction/engagement into the detective plot line is exciting, but hardly plausible; and as any big historical mystery novel it starts slowly but gradually becomes more engrossing. As soon as the plot starts unfolding, the events happen at a steady speed but with recurring irritating historical explanations. The structural presentation of the novel could be best described using the following metaphor: the steadily-paced train of narration stops for a historical lecture at some railway stations. These lectures are historically exact, but occasionally and inevitably boring and pesky (Carr is after all a historian). The ending of the novel is too crowded, and the forces impeding and interfering with the investigation as well as their objectives are not clearly defined and are given somewhat vague roles. At the same time this novel is a wonderful insight into the world of psychiatry and medical criminology. The topic of dark, abusive and excruciating past is deftly intertwined into the book.
The most enigmatic and believable character is definitely Laszlo Kreisler who is not only a true savant, but also a compassionate figure due to his background. Moore, the narrator, is a Watsonesque figure, while Sarah Howard is too brusque, grotesque, and masculine in her aspirations for equality. On the other hand, some historical figures are just figures, and their names are more realistic than their characters. Sometimes I had an impression that their only function was a name-dropping to achieve the historical authenticity.
Overall, the novel is a pleasant book with an interesting excursus into the dark criminal past of New York and the psyche of the serial killer.

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Filed under Book Review, Historical Mystery, Mystery

2 responses to “The Alienist by Caleb Carr

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