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[817] The Alienist – Caleb Carr

1carered

“From that moment on, he said, we must make every possible effort to rid themselves of preconceptions about human behavior. We must try not to see the world through our own eyes, nor to judge it by our own values, but through and by those of our killer.” (Ch.13, 129)

The Alienist is an engrossing historical fiction taking place in New York City just before the turn of the century. It revolves around the activities of one of the first forensic investigations in world history. In 1896 a serial killer is brutally slaughtering young transverstite boy prostitutes and mutilating their bodies. With neither the public nor the police interested in lives or deaths of these abominations to society, and that the poor and the new-immigrated warrant little attention, there is very little incentive to investigate. Not only is the police not interested, along with church officials who are only concerned with their own monetary interests, they contrive to obfuscate and suppress facts of the crimes.

If we accepted the supposition of his sanity, then we were left with the nagging question of what possible satisfaction or benefit he could be deriving from the butchery. (Ch.15, 157)

The task of tracking the killer has been assigned to Theodore Roosevelt’s (Police Commissioner at the time) old friend from his Harvard days, Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, who is an alienist, or an expert on mental pathologies (minds that are alienated from themselves). Kreizler recruits John Schuyler Moore, a police reporter for the New York Times to investigate, along with Sara Howard, a woman detective who is looked down upon by her male colleagues. A firm believer in psychological causation, Kreizler thinks the context of life leads to a psychopath, The dredging up of this argument takes reader to the philosophical heart of the book, which explores the causes of sanity and criminality, and ultimately the nature of evil.

So unfolded is a challenging and tedious investigation on various facets. Between setbacks, interference, slow advances, with the help of modern forensic techniques, a profile containing the killer’s facts and personal histories is assembled. The team comes to terms with the mandate that they have to abandon their own preconceptions and start seeing the world in the killer’s shoes. When confrontation with the killer becomes inevitably imminent, on the killer’s schedule, the team comes to empathize with a man who is equal parts predator and prey.

The Alienist isn’t only an ingenious thriller, it gives authenticity of old New York. This I attribute to the fact that Caleb Carr is a historian and biographer. Beneath its rich historical trappings is a breathless and sometimes grisly detective story that reveals the social turmoil of the time. It shows, sadly, that a crisis like the serial killer is inevitable because he is himself an offspring of a society and its sick conscience. The killer dodges the law but craves the society, craves the opportunity to show people what their society had done to him. And the odd thing, as Carr has really nailed, is that society revels men like the killer who are easy repositories of all that is dark and wrong in our own social world. Society tolerates what makes the killer.

498 pp. Random House. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]