The Alienist – Caleb Carr

Book: The Alienist
Author: Caleb Carr
Publisher: Random House
496 pages
My Rating: 1.5 of 5 stars

New York Times reporter John Moore is paired with criminal psychologist Dr. Laszlo Kreizler to solve a series of crimes against young child prostitutes in Caleb Carr’s first book, The Alienist. The murders are heinous and no one knows who is committing them. There is also little interest because the boys come from the immigrant community and their occupation is taboo. Corruption is rampant in New York City and police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt charges Moore, Kreizler and a small group of others to search for the killer.

Just writing that little summary makes me feel like this book would be interesting. I was actually very excited to read this because so many people had said it was one of their favorite mystery reads of all-time. Sadly, it was not to be. I slogged through this entire book. I even fought with it and wanted to throw it across the room more than a few times. I read the hardcover version of the book too so those 496 pages would have been even longer in paperback. There were so many problems that I had with this book that I am just not sure where to start.

The storytelling was overwrought with foreshadowing. I would say a good half to two-thirds of the chapters ended with some form of foreshadowing. Chapter 24 ends like this:
“We watched the burning pieces of paper turn into flakes of smoking ash, both of us silently hoping that this would be the last we’d ever need to speak of the matter, that Laszlo’s behavior would never again warrant investigation into his past. But as it turned out, the unahppy tale so sketchily referred to in the now-incinerated report did surface again to a later point in our investigation, to cause a very real—indeed an almost fatal—crisis.”
Now doing this a few times throughout a book would not have bothered me, but it became so habitual that I found myself anticipating the “duh duh duh” moment that was surely coming at the end of every chapter. The book tried so hard to be literary and it actually accomplished it at some points in the book, but overall the literary devices were so overused that they became clich├ęd.

Then there was the initial question of whether or not the attacker was a male or female. Based on physical evidence, they postulated that the attacker was 6’2”. It must be a male, right? That’s what they thought. Well, later in the book another boy is killed and a team member named Sara goes to view the crime scene. She is so horrified by what she sees that she says something like (and I’m paraphrasing), “The murderer is a male. There is no way a woman could do this.” All the men on the team were taken aback that Sara knew this so definitively. Really?!!! You think?!!! You just finished going on an on in previous pages about the murderer being 6’2” tall. Now how many women in 1896 were over 6 feet tall? At this point in the book I just let out a sigh and a groan. I had to finish it since it was the choice for my book club.

Then there was Dr. Kreizler. The man was a caricature. I think Richard Attenborough’s portrayal of John Hammond in Jurassic Park would have fit Dr. Kreizler really well at some points. The man would never divulge information. It was a murder investigation and he was working with a team of detectives, a newspaper reporter, and a female employee of the NYPD. You’d think that they would be open with their ideas so that they could find this person that is ravaging New York City. No, he wasn’t. Everything was riddles with him up until the end of the book. I found myself wanting the killer to make Dr. Kreizler his next victim.

I can say that I did like some of the non-fiction aspects of the book. The historical parts of Theodore Roosevelt being the police commissioner and just what the city was like was interesting. I also enjoyed the parts of the book where the alienist studies were examined (though it wasn’t very detailed). For me, the story is what fell far short of being remotely interesting. The best part of the story was the villain who actually had depth to his character despite only physically being in the book for a very short period of time. I wish there would have been more storyline with the killer’s story than there was because it was the only part of the book that I found hard to put down.

I am in the minority as far as my opinion of this book goes. Most people love it. They think it’s fantastic so I won’t tell anyone not to read it. I think my book club enjoyed it (I actually showed up late because I had not finished the book by the time they met—the only time this has happened to me in 11 meetings). So, instead of saying that people should just let this one fall by the wayside, I think I would recommend that they read the description of the book, some reviews of it, and decide for themselves if they think it’s worthwhile to read. I am definitely interested to see what other people have to say about this book.
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