The Alienist

Written by Caleb Carr



This book was hard to put down most of the time.  Set in the late 1800’s in New York City, an alienist (an early psychologist or psychiatrist), a journal, a secretary, and two Jewish detectives are tasked by Police Commissioner Teddy Roosevelt to find and stop a serial killer.

The Alienist was fascinating on so many levels.

Carr painted a compelling portrait of a New York City in the midst of flux.  It was a city of poverty and bigotry and rampant violence.  But it was also a city on the cutting edge of progress.  New York City was on the cusp of becoming the NYC that we know today.  And Carr painted a picture of it with words.  You feel the gritty darkness of the tenements.  You can almost taste the steak at Delmonico’s.  You want to be there and not be there all at the same time.

I also really loved Teddy Roosevelt in this book.  Carr describes the world of the NYC police force and recreates the tensions felt as they were shoved into a modern age of police work.  Roosevelt was a catalyst for this change, and in this book, Carr takes this larger-than-life person and humanizes him.  Any time Roosevelt entered the page, I found myself sitting forward just a bit.  I couldn’t wait to see what he would do or say.

The reason I gave this book four stars instead of five is the psychology behind this book.  On the one hand, I enjoyed following the detective work.  I kept trying to figure out what would happen and couldn’t quite get there.  This was profiling in its infancy, and as a fan of NCIS, Blue Bloods, and other cop shows, I found that to be so enjoyable.  Who was this guy?  Why did he do it?  How can they catch him before he kills again?

I just didn’t really like Lazlo Kreizler.  He was the titular Alienist.  He seemed to have some kind of holier-than-thou attitude that often left him sitting at his desk, watching the rest of his team work with a smug, superior attitude.  He seemed to always know what the team was working towards but then sat back to see if they could possibly be as smart as he.  It didn’t always come across that way, but when it did, it was really irritating.  He also had a habit of assigning psychology texts or getting on his soapbox and rambling on about some pretty technical theories.  I could have done without those.

John Schuyler Moore was another main character who was mildly annoying.  He seemed very milquetoast, but spent a lot of time talking about how tough and streetwise he was.  He lived with his grandmother, seemed perfectly happy to sponge off his better-off friends, and was generally forgettable.

Moore was balanced by the Isaacson brothers.  The Isaacson’s were Jewish Detectives that were assigned to the case by Roosevelt.  They were quirky and brilliant.  I enjoyed their banter and the complexity of their characters.

The book was pretty tight overall.  It dragged a bit here or there (usually the parts that made me feel like I was in school), but those weren’t terrible.  The main disappointment was the ended.  It didn’t seem to fit the pacing of the rest of the book.  It was muddy and seemed to speed up, slow down, and then get fuzzy.  Even after the denouement, the book dragged on for a bit, and I’m not sure what the point of that was.  Perhaps Carr was trying to wrap everything in a neat bow, but somehow it loosened the strings.

This book was good enough that I’ve added Carr’s other books to my Goodreads list.  I’d love to hear what you think.