Alienist – /ˈālēənist/ noun. Former term for psychiatrist.
The Alienist by Caleb Carr is a historical fiction set in New York City at the turn of the 20th century, which involves a host of fictional and real people.
The events that unfold in the novel are fictional, set against a poverty-stricken, corrupt, and expanding city, which was, unfortunately, real. The novel starts with the gruesome torture and murder of a boy, dressed and made up as a girl, working in one of the many brothels that caters to such inclination and preference. Then New York City police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt enlists the help of Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, a renowned but controversial alienist, to determine who may be behind the horrendous act. Kreizler has worked with the State before to identify individuals who have committed unspeakable acts owing to mental illness or psychological trauma and to distinguish them from those who commit crimes intentionally and deliberately. His fame and expertise has enabled him to open an institution for mentally disturbed individuals who can be rehabilitated.
Kreizler enlists the help of his longtime friend, Times reporter John Moore, and with the help of two additional forensic experts, and Sarah, Commissioner Roosevelt’s secretary, the group of unlikely detectives undertake to solve the case of the murdered boy, which they quickly find out, is not an isolated case.
Kreizler and his group use modern (at the time) psychiatric techniques as well as forensics (which was also just a budding “science” at the time) to get inside the head of the murderer to identify him and possibly stop him from killing his next victims, which were mostly young immigrant boys involved in the sex trade.
More than a murder mystery, The Alienist is a social commentary on the conditions in New York City at the turn of the 20th century, particularly, the destitute conditions of immigrants, the corruption of the police force and the government as well as the power that a few groups/individuals, such as mob bosses and wealthy businessmen, wielded in society. The novel also gives readers a glimpse into the fascinating world of psychiatry and the inner workings of the minds of mentally disturbed individuals as well as the thought process of experts like Kreizler, whose passion involves helping such individuals function in society.
The Alienist is an interesting read that fuses fact and fiction to allow readers to step into the past to experience what life and society was like in New York and the events and factors that made it into what it is today.
The Alienist (1994) – Caleb Carr
Bantam Books; 597 pages (tpb)
Personal rating: 3/5