Saturday, April 03, 2010

Book 54: The Alienist

The Alienist by Caleb Carr

I picked this up based on Dene's recommendation and I'm glad I did. As I told her upon reading her review, I had never quite realized what this novel was about and thought it was a slightly pretentious literary novel or something. However, once I knew of my mistake, it didn't take me long to pick up a copy.

I have read one other novel somewhat recently (in the last year) that dealt with a crime involving a psychiatrist's help, and I didn't enjoy it very much though I thought the idea was interesting - in that case, it was A Death in Vienna, and the psychiatrist was too much of an obnoxious know-it-all to make the story interesting. The crime was also rather simple, and boring. There's a fine line between being brilliant and condescending.

In comparison, while Dr. Kreizler is definitely the leading mind in this novel when it comes to profiling, the other characters are not made to feel stupid and they also had their own skills to bring to the table. The two detectives have technical skills and can be seen using early tools of forensic science, dusting for fingerprints, and using other various tools. There was also a female team member that helped add a different perspective to the investigation and whose dream it is to be the first female detective in the New York Police Department. On occasion, she seemed a bit naive but she was an upper class woman in the late 19th century so I'm sure her upbringing was a bit sheltered on occasion. The last team member was the narrator, John Schuyler Moore, a journalist and long time friend of Kreizler and Teddy Roosevelt's.

Dr. Kreizler and his team conduct their investigation in secret because there are a lot of politics involved in the investigation. Roosevelt has recently taken over as police commissioner and has caused quite an uproar as he has fired many cops to get rid of corruption. He also is a strong believer in science and has respect for Kreizler's profession as an alienist, or psychologist, but given the current state of affairs, cannot publicly have him work on the case.

Over the past few months, several young boy prostitutes who specialize in dressing up as women/girls have been found murdered and mutilated. Despite several corpses, no one has really made much of a connection between the murders, and since then as now, no one cares too much about the concerned population (immigrants, poor, prostitutes) so it went unnoticed. Of course, given the lack of data bases back then, that would probably be another reason certain crimes could occur without immediately being linked. It's kind of amazing how certain things could even be accomplished before humans had all these extra tools at their disposal.

Given little to work with besides the victims, the team begins to put together a profile of the killer, based on the types of skills he obviously must possess in order to do what he does and also on the types of victims he is drawn to and what he does to them. Obviously, this is not really a "whodunit" so it's not one where the reader can guess the killer from the beginning of the novel. Instead, it is a examination of how to create a profile that can help them determine where to even begin looking for a suspect.

Additionally, the city is shown as being on the cusp of changing - a more modern era is rapidly approaching, and it also appears the oppressed masses may be tired of settling. Carr mentions the journalist Jacob Riis, who first started raising awareness about the conditions in the tenements with his photography in passing as a character that Moore interacts with. I actually remembered the name from high school history class so I definitely enjoyed that. I also had no clue that Roosevelt had ever been police commissioner - I usually associate him with a certain amount of imperialism (the Spanish-American War) and parks.

No comments: