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Reader’s Den, Biblio File

December Reader's Den: Caleb Carr's The Alienist, Part I

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Last week we did a quick introduction and description for The Alienist, a mystery set in late-19th century New York City at the dawning of forensic pathology. Child prostitution, gruesome at any time, becomes even more grisly; a serial killer hunts the boys plying this trade in Teddy Roosevelt's New York, removing their eyes as part of the killings. Part I of the novel sees the titular alienist, Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, assemble an eclectic crew to put his psychiatric theories in practice.

John Moore, a New York Times reporter who rubs elbows with the likes of muckraker Jacob Riis and proto-mafioso Paul Kelly, narrates the action as it moves from Kreizler's Institute to the toniest precincts frequented by the city's bankers and power brokers. Along the way, Kreizler's team uses the emerging science of psychology to begin painting their portrait of the killer.

Police Mugshot of Paul KellyPolice Mugshot of Paul KellyCJacob Riis., Digital ID 2015148, New York Public Libraryarr is on record saying he wished to maintain the authenticity of the historical period in this novel, restricting his characters knowledge to what was only available at the time. Readers are exposed to the early theories of William James and Sigmund Freud among others as the team races to find the killer before more boy prostitutes are snuffed out like gaslamps.

Do you believe the author succeeded in his aim of historical authenticity? He describes many vanished locations in the book such as the Croton Reservoir. Others have changed much since Roosevelt's tenure as commissioner. Moore's home in the Washington Square neighborhood comes to mind.

The Washington Memorial Arch and North Washington Square., Digital ID 1600692, New York Public LibraryKreizler himself emerges as something of an enigma in the early pages. Little is known other than his reputation as a brilliant alienist and seeming collector of mental curiosities from his Institute. His driver Stevie Taggert is a boy Kreizler rescued from the streets. Cyrus Montrose, a hulking African-American and convicted killer of a corrupt policeman, serves as Kreizler's valet. Then there's Mary Palmer, Kreizler's mute housekeeper, another murderer.

A curious quality also pervades the crew Kreizler pulls together with Roosevelt's approval to investigate the murders. Moore is something of an expert on New York's criminal underworld. There's a pistol-packing feminist spinster in the form of Sara Howard. The Isaacson brothers are of Jewish descent and former Pinkerton agents, with one being a postmortem expert and the other skilled at cataloging crime scenes.

Do you think Kreizler's "collecting" of people for his household is motivated by compassion? Or something more unsavory, like a P.T. Barnum of the psychological world? Do the characters seem, as one reviewer put it, anachronistic? Chime in below with your thoughts.

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