Review: The Alienist by Caleb Carr

Cover of "The Alienist"Cover of The Alienist

· Mass Market Paperback: 608 pages
· Publisher: Bantam (June 1, 1995)
· Language: English
· ISBN-10: 0553572997
· ISBN-13: 978-0553572995
· Genre: historical fiction, crime story, thriller
· Target group: adults (definitely and only)


New York City, the turn of the 19th and twentieth centuries. The police finds a horribly mutilated corpse of a teenage immigrant boy, identified as Georgio Santorelli, a.k.a Gloria. It seems that it is another victim of an unknown serial killer who preys upon cross-dressing boys-prostitutes. Police detectives are unable and/or unwilling to make any progress solving the ghastly crimes. In fact, someone with power or influence seems to be bent on silencing witnesses and thwarting any investigation.

Theodore Roosevelt, currently a Police Commissioner (but being on the brink of a political career), decides that this case requires a special approach. He enlists a New York Times reporter called John Moore, our narrator, and a groundbreaking psychologist Laszlo Kreizler (the title alienist) to track the killer by compiling his psychological profile. The investigative team also includes two scientifically-minded Jewish detective sergeants, Marcus and Lucius Isaacson, and Sara Howard, a young woman who is just a secretary but dreams of becoming the first female police officer ever. Their investigation won’t be easy, not only because the killer is clearly as clever as them but also because they will have to pay heavy price for their cheek of circumventing the officials and being innovative. There will be various personal tragedies to be dealt with.

What I liked:

The historical period was presented in a splendid way – apparently the author did a lot of research and loved every minute of it. “The Alienist” is filled with rich details about both the seamier underside and more privileged parts of late-19th-century New York City and the then-novel crime detection techniques. Carr does a good job of creating a tense atmosphere with vivid descriptions of a metropolis full of political corruption, street violence and the gangster owned parts of town. The depictions of day-to-day life in the less pleasant parts of the Lower East Side are fairly hair-raising.

The plot is as fast-paced as I like and never make you bored although the book is far from being short. However I found the psychological portraits of the main characters the biggest asset here. This 1896 murder tale is gruesome and intelligent at the same time. Both the murderer and most of the detectives forming the special group looking for him, are fully three-dimensional and as close to real life as you would wish for. Psychological insight into the head of the culprit is highlighting the shocking nature of the crimes described, rather than simply being a backdrop to the action itself. Dialogues are sharp and interesting, romantic interludes – realistic and warm and the description of Victorian New York society wide and stunning – taking the reader on a trip from the opera house and J.P. Morgan’s board room to ‘disorderly houses’ and shady pubs, where mobsters, cops, ‘decent’ citizens and their young victims mingle freely and conduct their business day and night.

What I didn’t like:

If the synopsis reminded you a bit of “Age of Innocence” by Edith Wharton think again. This story can be very graphic – Caleb Carr doesn’t shy away from describing various mutilations performed by the killer on  children. Sometimes they are covered in EXTREME detail: I think here mainly (but not only) about a quite chilling final scene which literally made me cringe. Underage homosexual acts were just the tip of a very ugly iceberg by the way so the narration was at times really hard to stomach. Fortunately it never crossed a certain barrier but it was close.

What’s more, I must admit I never managed to relate to the character of Sara. Not really. Ok, she is that independent, strong-willed, clever woman who wants to function in a society dominated by men but, in my very humble opinion, she lacked some warmth, coming across as something of an anachronistic caricature of a feminist rather a well-fleshed-out heroine. If she only fell in love…

Finally the motives for the killings are never fully explained and many loose ends are left untied – specifically how and why the killer did what he did. The author uses a clever trick, pulling the metaphorical rug out from us in the end (I won’t say more in order not to spoil you) and it left me a bit disappointed.

Final verdict:

Anybody who enjoys mysteries, thrillers, Victorian novels or generally good historical fiction will be delighted with “The Alienist”. I was and I honestly recommend it. Despite the fact that my ‘dislikes’ section is not empty it was still a hell of a good read

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9 Responses to Review: The Alienist by Caleb Carr

  1. Wait… what??? You asked for some romance in the book? Wha???? ;DI don't think this is for me. The more graphic it is, the harder it is to turn off in my brain. I have enough imagination to take over what isn't presented so… *shiver* Great review tho. It does have me curious.

  2. I'm not sure this one is for me, but I love how you described it. Frankly, I just don't think I'm tough enough to read it haha 🙂

  3. anachronist says:

    You mean I am tough? Muahahaha….Well, perhaps I am and yes, I surprised myself actually wanting MORE romance in a book for a change! You will never know!

  4. Tracy says:

    Sorry, anachronist, but graphic mutilations I can do without. I just wouldn't be able to read it.

  5. anachronist says:

    I decided to mention that aspect just to warn people who don't feel like reading about such things. No need to be sorry Tracy I can certainly understand. Let me just tell you that Stieg Larsson was imvho worse (but it is only me).

  6. Blodeuedd says:

    I do think that this one is one of those a friend of mine would enjoy more than I. She mostly reads books like this one 🙂

  7. anachronist says:

    Blodeuedd you can suggest this one to her then and surprise her with your knowledge ;).

  8. Tracy says:

    Well, thanks for the warning! (Wish there'd been a similar one on The Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfeld – there's a graphic torture scene in that one right at the beginning of the book – couldn't tell you if there are more in it because I stopped reading it PDQ)

  9. anachronist says:

    I suppose it would be a nice idea if publishers actually put codes on book covers, not unlike movie coding, indicating e.g. violence, graphic sex scenes, torture scenes etc. I always try to warn the readers of my reviews about such things, no matter whether I was able to tollerate it myself or not.

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