Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Alienist

I don’t remember when I picked this up. I was using the receipt as a bookmark the whole time and meant to write down the date so I could report it here (details are very important), but, like an idiot, threw it out when I finished the book. No matter. Caleb Carr’s examination into the fictional hunt for a serial killer at the infant stages of criminology and profiling was created with intelligent writing that made sure I did not pay attention to much else. After perusing his Wikipedia article, I get the feeling that most things Carr wrote before and after this 1992 National Bestseller is not much worth checking out, although I am interested in a take on Sherlock Holmes he penned.

It’s 1892 in the Lower East Side of New York City. A huge portion of street traffic are horse-drawn carriages, people still walk around with lanterns for lighting their houses and the Manhattan area below 14th street, Union Square (The Five Points) is a callous slum full of racist Irish thugs and drug-abusers instead of a land deeply pervaded with Chinese history, population and culture as it is today. The novel takes place through the eyes of John Moore, a crime reporter from the New York Times, and follows him as he joins a fictional group of what would be the world’s first team of profilers. The group, composed of Theodore Roosevelt, at the time a progressive police commissioner, Sara Howard, the first woman to be hired by the police department, and the Isaacson brothers, two police detectives keen in the more shunned scientific methods of catching criminals at the time, is led by Laszlo Kreisler, a famous psychologist and criminologist who is both praised and criticized in science and law enforcement circles for his views on how personal psychological history plays into the choices a person makes in the present time. Together, they interrogate a recent string of brutal and graphic killings of young boys who work in brothels as “female” prostitutes and profile the crimes’ perpetrator while the rest of New York City law enforcement turns their back on the murders.

While the language of the writing was not that colorful in its imagery or wit, the pacing moves at the perfect speed throughout the entire story, remaining anxious but moderate in the intense scenes, and calm but continual in the more dramatic scenes. The novel is, of course, a vehicle for the character of Kreizler, who Caleb Carr began to name his purported series after when he wrote another book in this universe. But to me, Kreizler didn’t really make it in the Hall of memorable fictional characters. I didn’t find much about his mannerisms or attitude that quirky or arbitrary. Nevertheless, he was very entertaining, and the book notably becomes much less interesting when he leaves it for a few pages. Sara the rebel is also of note, but the fact that Carr teases her over the romantic interest role for the main character John Moore sort of sapped the life out of her for me. But, despite these criticisms, I’d recommend this book to anyone who can read English, as it will grip you from the start and never let go.