Caleb Carr, The Alienist
The beginning of the novel favorably impressed me: the first chapter mentions the funerals of Theodore Roosevelt, in 1919. The narrator, John Moore, a journalist for the Times, recalls the series of events that brought back together three former college friends: himself, Roosevelt and the psychiatrist (alienist) Laszlo Kreizler, in 1896.
At the turn of last century, Theodore Roosevelt is the head of the NY police department and has decided to eradicate corruption from within the police ranks. One night, Kreizler sends for his friend Moore: the mutilated body of a young male prostitute has been discovered on Williamsburg Bridge. The murder of a boy-whore (when their existence was hardly acknowledged) didn’t call for a police investigation back then. But Kreizler, who suspects a serial-killer behind this ghastly murder that he has connected with a former one, insists that Roosevelt let him form his own team of “untouchables” and find the man responsible for the crimes.
The main originality of the novel resides in the fact that the enquiry takes place when forensic sciences were just beginning to emerge. When relying on fingerprints was considered audacious (The French had just discovered a system based on records of measurements of different parts of the body that was itself revolutionary) and when DNA identification was still unheard of, the particulars of an investigation were an entirely different matter…
Laszlo Kreizler, who invents the concept of “profiler” in the course of this novel, believes that people are determined by their early childhood experiences and rejects the idea held by his contemporaries that a man can exercise his free-will. He also believes that true insanity is rare, and that most behavioral dysfunctions can be cured provided their cause is discovered.
The depiction of Manhattan at the eve of the twentieth century, when the statue of Liberty was brand new and when you only walked in lower-east-side if you had a death wish, accounts for a truly fascinating atmosphere. Unfortunately, the praise stops here… Somewhere in the middle of the book, the novel loses its pace and what started like a promising and entertaining mystery becomes your an average best-seller inspired by Jack the Ripper. Was Carr rushed by his publishers? It seems that most of the threads he skillfully laid came down to a disappointing unraveling: Carr built the foundations for interesting scientific explanations and ended-up with some unconvincing pseudo-psychological stuff.
If the character of the alienist himself is interesting and complex, I found that the narrator was a bad impersonation of doctor Watson. His lack of insight was sometimes tedious and his forgetting of details crucial to the enquiry not credible (He is a journalist: he’s not supposed to be that forgetful…). I’ve read that Caleb Carr’s Angel of Darkness is written from the point of view of another character already present in The Alienist (Stevie Taggert) and that a third book will be presented from the perspective of Sara Howard (the stereotypical feminist character). Great idea in itself, but multiplying the points of views doesn’t make up for half-interesting stories. It partially explains why some characters are not as complex as others but not all readers are ready to purchase several books in order to have a fair knowledge of all the characters involved in the first one. I for instance will probably not read the sequels: there are better mysteries out there…