I could not put this book down. A historical fiction thriller about a group of people trying to find a serial killer in New York City in 1896, The Alienist does a wonderful job imagining how early detectives did their work while painting a graphic picture of life at that time. I got deep satisfaction following the various characters as they learned what they could from the crime scenes and did what Poirot would suggest: think about the psychology of the crime. At that time, psychology was a new, mistrusted, and controversial field, and the psychologist of the title is on the cutting edge. He instructs his colleagues in theory and case histories, and together they build a picture of a man who would commit such crimes, intending to use it to find the killer.
Carr doesn’t waste a moment – almost everything that happens helps move the story forward. Evidence and psychology are used logically to solve the crime, making it a 19th-century procedural with lots of instructional material provided along the way. And the political, economic, and social setting of the novel are all part of the story, which includes Theodore Roosevelt, who was a police commissioner at the time, and John Pierpont Morgan, one of the great financiers of that century.
The only weakness in the book was the occasional slip that every historical novel I’ve ever read falls prey to – inclusion of details that do not serve the story. The most grievous was a short scene at Roosevelt’s house in which every child who is old enough to has his or her moment in the spotlight being memorable. Otherwise, it mainly showed up as the occasional paragraph listing streets and buildings passed as characters traveled from one point in the city to another. By the end of the book, these particular passages didn’t bother me as much because New York is an important part of the story and having a real sense of the city as it was then gives the novel a firm foundation. And overall, Carr had a good understanding of the heart of his story and kept the historical elements from overwhelming it.
The other thing this book made me realize is why I find fiction so much more compelling than nonfiction – fiction provides the details I long for, and things make sense. Not long ago, I read The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, which tells the true story of the serial killer H. H. Holmes in tandem with the events surrounding the 1893 World’s Fair. Despite the excellent research he did, Larson could not answer the questions I wanted answered. Why Holmes did the things he did is not really known, and that left me wanting more from the book. The Alienist completely scratched that itch. And having done his homework in order to create a believable killer, Carr gave Holmes his due. Holmes was in Philadelphia awaiting execution during the spring of 1986, and though he is only mentioned a few times, he is well used.
An engrossing read for those interested in the era and who love mysteries.