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The Alienist    by Caleb Carr order for
by Caleb Carr
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Bantam, 1998 (1994)
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* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

I've been meaning to read The Alienist for some time, since it was recommended to me by a bookstore owner. Set in 1896 New York City, it features an unusual trio of partners in detection, who also happen to be former Harvard classmates - NY Times crime reporter John Schuyler Moore, eccentric alienist Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, and newly appointed Police Commissioner Teddy Roosevelt (the latter has a much more peripheral role than the others).

In the spring of 1896, a time of rampant police corruption and dire poverty in New York City, Kreizler summons Moore in the middle of the night to a horrific crime scene, where he meets Roosevelt. An adolescent boy prostitute, dressed and painted as a girl, has been killed and carved up, and his eyes cut out. At the time, psychology was a very young science and Kreizler's theories of context (the influence of early experience on later actions) were at best controversial, and considered by some as dangerous to social order. But Roosevelt believes in Kreizler enough to authorize a private investigation. In addition to Moore, the team includes two police officers - brothers Lucius and Marcus Isaacson - skilled in modern scientific techniques and, as liason, police department secretary Sara Howard, whose ambition (tough to fulfill in that era) is to be a female officer).

They soon discover a pattern that connects this latest murder to previous ones. In trying to get into the killer's mind, Kreizler interviews many perpetrators of related crimes, sharing what he learns - and his theories - with Moore and the reader. Along the way, the author shows us New York at the turn of the twentieth century in all its glory and all its sordidness - from frequent feasts at Demonicos to encounters with socialist crime boss Paul Kelly and brothels where poor children are regularly brutalized. He also presents the beginnings of many modern crime techniques, like fingerprinting, as well as others (such as anthropometry) that were tried and dropped. The investigators slowly and gradually develop a profile of the serial killer, obtaining a better understanding of how their own childhoods established biases as well.

But, while they seek the murderer, he's been watching them - and occasionally egging them on. Powerful people in the city, representing church and commerce, also see the investigation as a threat to their interests and intervene with tragic consequences. As Moore himself tells us at the beginning, the investigators 'set out on the trail of a murderous monster and ended up coming face to face with a frightened child'. I recommend The Alienist to all fans of serial chillers, as well as anyone interested in the history of New York and/or criminology. Dr. Laszlo Kreizler is rather like an American Sherlock Holmes, with John Schuyler Moore as his Watson.

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