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The AlienistReview - The Alienist
by Caleb Carr
Random House, 1994
Review by CP
Apr 10th 1998 (Volume 2, Issue 15)

 This has already been a bestseller and has been in paperback for three years. But I was recently in an airport waiting for a delayed plane and I'd done all the magazine and academic reading I was ready to do. I knew that The Alienist was an historical detective thriller set around the end of the nineteenth century, about a serial killer and the infancy of American psychiatry. I like detective fiction and I am fascinated by psychology, and the book was there at the airport store, so I bought it. Being a slow reader, it took me a while to get through the 600 pages, but I enjoyed the book.

 The plot runs along at a fast pace, and the cast of characters is small enough to keep track of. A number of teenage boy prostitutes are savagely murdered and their bodies mutilated. Our team of intrepid and unconventional detectives, led by the mysterious but brilliant Laszlo Kreisler, sets out to find the killer by inventing and perfecting the method of psychological profiling. A crude version of this method had been tried in the search of Jack the Ripper, but failed. Kreisler's ideas are informed by the psychological theories of William James and Adolf Meyer, and he explains these ideas to his team (and the reader). These lessons fit in the text a little awkwardly, but for those such as myself with an interest in the history of psychology, they add to the richness of the book.

 I found the style of the book a little mechanistic. The narrator of the story, New York Times journalist John Schuyler Moore, comes across as a smart, yet unimaginative man of action who needs many details explained to him Historical details about New York City and recent inventions are often thrown in gratuitously, and left me feeling that Carr wanted to show how much research he had done in preparation for writing this novel. Although there is one main mystery that is the backbone of the novel, the small puzzles that arise throughout the novel rarely go unsolved for more than a few pages. Strangely, although it is a long novel with many details, it is very simple. The detectives gradually build up their profile of the killer and gradually close in on him. The reader can imagine for herself how the book ends.

 Some opportunities are missed. Although the main figure of the novel, Kreisler, visits St. Elizabeth's mental hospital outside Washington DC, we never get a description of the place. It would have been fascinating to have that infamous asylum described in detail around the turn of the century. Surprisingly little is said about the mental health establishment, those who run the main asylums. It is clear that Kreisler is a renegade thinker, but we don't get to learn what ideas he is reacting against.

 But on the whole this is a rewarding novel that doesn't pretend to be more than it is. It is clear much research went into its writing, and the overall whole makes a lot of sense. The message is that demons are made, not born, and in order to understand a serial killer, we need to look at his childhood. Some recent cases and research into personality disorders may have thrown doubt on this, but as Carr tells the story, we are forced to examine our horror at the crimes and balance them with the horror of the childhood that molded the character of the criminal.


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