Detective Fiction Based in Facts – A Review of The Alienist by Caleb Carr

In 1896 in New York it appears a killer is exclusively going after underage male prostitute who dress as girls, a rather niche demographic, one that the police department and the newspapers don’t really care about. Future President Theodore Roosevelt is the New York police commissioner who is hoping to get corruption out of the force and is willing to help solve the case outside of the police department. The group of ‘detectives’ is made up of a journalist, a psychologist, two detectives who want to bring some new techniques into criminology, a female Police secretary, and a few ex-criminals who Dr. Kreizler (our psychologist) employs. This book is set less than a decade after the infamous Jack the Ripper case and this team of detectives are determined to build on what was learnt in the failed pursuit of the Ripper, whose victims were similarly disenfranchised workers in ‘the flesh trade’, in order to catch this killer.

The Alienist (‘Alienist’ being a 19th word for a person who studies psychology) blurs the lines between fiction and fact, highly researched and littered with the new psychological theories of late 19th Century America and famous American figures turned into villains, heroes, and uncategorisable morally dubious characters. Real people interact with fictional characters, giving the fictional people a greater sense of realism and the real people (like Theodore Roosevelt and J. P. Morgan) a level of mythologisation. The book moves between the slums and brothels to high society operas, providing a complex socio-economic portrait of the period.

This is a pacy work of detective fiction which drew me into the plot by making me feel like I was part of the team working on the complex case. The piecing together of clues was pacy enough to keep me engaged but slow enough to allow for realism. Caleb Carr is obviously fascinated by the psychology of killers, his own father was the infamous Lucien Carr whose murder of David Kammerer is said to be ‘the murder that started it all’ as one of the seminal moments in the early years of the Beat Generation. The focus of the investigation is therefore unconventional, everything is a clue, to the way the killer mutilates his victims to the placement of the bodies, about what kind of person the killer is not, and more importantly what kind of person the killer is.

Carr was a non-fiction writer and historian before producing this novel and initially pitched this book to his publisher as a work of non-fiction and with it’s first person narration from John Moore, a journalist, the book has an almost true crime feel. Carr introduces the reader to psychological theories from academics that we may not have heard of, the setting of the book is just as Freud ‘the father of psychology’ was publishing his first book, and therefore shows that Freud is not to be all and end all of psychology. This is something I found really interesting about the novel, having studied psychology at ALevel I never studied anything earlier than Freud. This novel would therefore be a great read for anyone interested in psychology and study of psychopathy, detective fiction, and historical fiction.

Overall, without giving away too much of the plot, this book is a great piece of detective fiction, a real page turner. Just as it seems like the team has reached a dead end another detail is rexamined, played with, pulled apart and picked at to find a vital clue in the remains.

If you enjoy reading the book there’s a TV adaptation of the novel coming out this year!

Overall rating: 4/5

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