Serial killer novel cuts the ice

The Globe and Mail, July 9, 1994 

The Alienist

By Caleb Carr

Random House, 496 pages, $29.50

An initial glance at Caleb Carr’s novel might make it look like either an amazing stroke of luck or brilliant marketing. Take the manners and distinguishing marks of 19th-century New York, combine them with the tale of a rampaging serial killer and come up with a can’t-lose proposition: a novel hybrid of The Age Of Innocence and Silence of the Lambs.

‍     Caleb Carr is a contributing editor at MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History and the author of a number of books on that subject. He may be a marketing strategist par excellence, but that doesn’t answer whether The Alienist is worth reading. And it is. The novel is tightly plotted enough that it can be read in a single sitting. And Carr has written the book well enough to make it something more than just an expensively trashy jolt-a-thon. Not towering literature, or a tome that belongs on a shelf of indisputable classics, but a stylish, engaging thriller crafted with a few stylistic flourishes from the period in which it’s set.

‍     We think of serial killers as a modern phenomenon, like smog or chronic fatigue syndrome. But insane human beings driven by bloodlust and a complete lack of normal ability to distinguish right from wrong are an old, old curse. The story unfolds in New York City in 1896, affording Carr a range of settings, social mores and characters that would not be possible had he set The Alienist in more recent times.

‍     The first victim is an employee in one of the city’s boy brothels. Polite society in the last century was reluctant to publicly acknowledge homosexuality in any form. And if the city chose to believe there was no such thing as homosexuality, the murder of an adolescent hustler would be unlikely to receive much attention.

‍     Carr has researched the period minutely, and takes great pains to recreate New York’s various social strata during the 19th century. And he is faithful to the period in other ways, including the voice he gives his narrator.

‍     The story’s narrator, John Schuyler Moore, is a reporter for The New York Times, and because of his paper’s standards and practices, can’t report on the killing. But the city’s police department is run — as it was in real life — by Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican committed to reform (that’s just one of the instances in which the book is eerily prescient and comments on the present through the lens of the past). Roosevelt is determined to clean up the corruption that infects the city’s police department. Always eager to try the most modern methods available, Roosevelt enlists an eminent “alienist,” Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, to bring the infant sciences of psychology and forensic pathology to bear on the case.

‍     The book’s title comes from the then-popular term for people like Kreizler: “alienists” studied people alienated from themselves and from the society around them That’s a decision that adds another layer of suspense to the proceedings. Alienists were seen at the time as something akin to witch-doctors: feared, mistrusted or openly despised. For that reason, the investigation and pursuit of the killer have to be kept secret.

‍     Carr offers glimpses of his characters — just deep enough to set the reader’s mind off on a number of tangents even as the story continues to unfold. The prose is efficient and evocative, if not poetic. There’s sufficient craftsmanship that the book pulls you into its world and keeps you there, noting some of the distinguishing landmarks of the world it has created without distracting you from the proceedings. It’s like a runaway horse-drawn hansom cab — The Alienist gallops headlong toward its conclusion as you hang on for dear life.

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