Jul 12, 2011

[Books] The Alienist

The AlienistI normally work through books fairly quickly. Once I start, there's that determined need to finish things. This has become all the more true ever since I started the Geeky Guide and its book reviews. After all, if I stop reading, then I won't have anything to write about.

This book though ended up taking me almost three years to finish, mainly because of personal issues that came in the way. After all, the book was a gift from a friend who stopped being a friend after a while. Then my personal situation changed until finally I found myself wondering where the time had gone.

So I ended up starting from the very beginning in order to maker sure that I didn't miss anything about this particular book. It's one that's pretty generous in terms of details (both supplementary and those essential to the plot). Given that, it can get a little easy to get lost unless (1) you read the book straight through within a reasonable amount of time or (2) you take notes as you read.

But isn't that the case with most other good mystery / crime novels?

The Alienist is a 1994 crime novel written by Caleb Carr. The book managed to hit the bestseller lists for both The New York Times and Publishers Weekly the same month it was released. In theory the film rights for the book are out there although no one has managed to make the movie a reality.

The book is narrated from the perspective of John Moore, a crime reporter for The New York Times, although largely as a flashback. The "present day" is January 8, 1919, which is the day that Theodore Roosevelt was buried. John gets together with Lazlo Kreizler and the two reminisce about a case that the three of them collaborated on in 1896.

The case started with the discovery of the mutilated body of a boy prostitute named Giorgio Santorelli. With his eyes gouged out and his genitalia stuffed into his mouth, the body is a fearsome sight and obviously the work of a most vile criminal. But given the case involves a body who pretends to be a woman for money, it's the kind of case that'll go largely ignored by the police department.

President of the United States Theodore Roosev...Image via WikipediaThus a much younger Theodore Roosevelt asks for the assistance of his two school friend - John and Lazlo. Moore's connections as a reporter would prove useful in ferreting out information and Kreizler was one of the most famous alienists of the time. For context, an alienist is what they used to call doctors who studied mental pathologies. Thus in the context of the case, Keizler was going to act in the capacity that modern criminal profilers do. And given Kreizler's suspicions that this was actually a serial killing related to a largely unsolved case years before, all the more they needed to figure out who had committed this crime and stop him or her before the next victim.

The book is an interesting tapestry composed of historical facts and details mixed in with the fictional case in question. In this sense, it has all the elements of a good crime / mystery novel mixed in with the kind of rich embellishments one finds in historical fiction. And clearly Carr has quite a passion for history and the city of New York given how much he goes into detail when describing the period, the food and the city as a whole. At times it becomes arguable whether the extent of his descriptions are truly necessary for the book, but they do add a unique quality to the narrative that gives the book a distinct tone.

In this regard, Carr does demonstrate a different brand of world building we normally associate with science fiction or fantasy writers. But instead of creating a new fictional environment, he's recreating a mostly accurate image of the past. This includes the corruption in the police force, the limited role of women in society and of course the restaurant culture of the time. Seriously, the man really loves to describe people eating or at the very least the dishes set before them.

And those light moments do help balance things out, I suppose. The book is full of dark alleys, macabre killings and grossly mutilated corpses. Beyond the dead children themselves, the book also has us going right into the old child prostitution culture of the time, thus evoking thoughts regarding LGBT rights and identity paired with the value in society allowed to immigrants. And those are some pretty big concepts to juggle, but Carr manages this quite well.

If anything, my main issue with the book is how the case seems to accelerate exponentially within the span of Chapter 23 in particular. Suddenly, the little investigative team evolved go on a speculation spree and form most of what eventually becomes the final profile of the criminal. And their main basis is a letter sent by the killer, thus throughout in all these rather circumstantial analysis of his possible background and personality based on word use and handwriting style. Thus this felt like that moment we get in every episode of CSI when suddenly all the lab work comes in far faster than it would in the real world and the case just falls into place. I felt the progression could have been managed better and perhaps spaced out a bit more as opposed to them going on this non-stop eureka right all in one chapter. Then add in the many CSI-like techniques which are being tested in the story since they're not yet accepted by the police and you get a full set of ducks all in a row indeed.

Apart from that one weird moment, the book is still a pretty good read. The complexity elevates it to a greater level of quality that will require more focus and thought as opposed to the kind of casual reading one reserves for idle amusement or trying to pass time while in the bathroom. This is not a bad thing, although it can act as a barrier to some readers who might give up on it too soon or read it in non-ideal environments.

The Alienist is definitely a different kind of book - one that rewards the dedicated mystery / crime buff as long as you stick with the story for the lang haul. Yes some moments are a bit hard to swallow, but then we forgave Sherlock Holmes for even more extravagant assumptions and speculations, right? The book gets 4 instances of the team dining at some reputable establishment in old New York out of a possible 5.

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  1. Wow, you're a certified bookworm! You make a very nice summary and blog article. Truly gifted :)

  2. Thanks Elmer! I'm trying to read more than 50 books this year - more than halfway there already!