The Alienist by Caleb Carr was the best book I read in 1994.
The sequel is The Angel of Darkness, which is also an awesome ride that has dated just fine since its release.
Both books are great because they combine several genres and literary
devices. They are period pieces in that they are set in New York in the 1890s. They have famous personalities. Future president Theodore Roosevelt, for example, makes appearances in both novels.
Mostly, though, they are mystery thrillers in which a group of New Yorkers are trying to stop killing sprees. While the cops are portrayed as hapless and corrupt, this group tries to get into the head of the criminal and understand their actions.
But the best part of the novels is the ensemble of characters. You can tell how good characters are drawn, how interesting they are, when your mood improves as you are reintroduced to them.
There is John Moore, the crime reporter for The New York Times. He has
been trying to find a publisher to accept his manuscript for the story which we know as “The Alienist.” He was the narrator for that book.
Leading them all, at least intellectually, is the great Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, a pioneer in the new field of forensic psychiatry. This time, Kreizler is still disliked by the movers and shakers and some in the legal system for arguing that the solution for youthful criminals isn’t always to just send them to prison.
Instead, he says, their behavior may be the result of actions or behavior by others, often their parents. He thus convinces some judges to let some young adults into his institute.
Among those he helped rehabilitate is Stevie Taggert, a street smart
young man. His nickname is Steviepipe because of his skill for using pipes to hurt those, including police officers, who tried to get in his way. Stevie lives with Kreizler, as does Cyrus Montrose, a smart, tough black man who seems hardened by his treatment in a racist society but is still quite kind to his friends.
There are the detective brothers Marcus and Lucius Isaacson, whose use of scientific equipment and information, such as forensics and ballistics, amaze and annoy their colleagues on the police department.
In The Alienist, Kreizler had each of the group members studying the
theories of Henry James and other thinkers to try to understand psychology and theories about why people act the way they do.
Together they tried to stop a serial killer preying on young boys.
This time the narrator is Stevie (Steviepipe). For each of his books, Carr has said, he is going to use a different character as a narrator. This adds depth to each story as you see everyone from a different perspective. In the last book, Moore came off as a hero while this time he seems like more of a shallow drunkard at times.
The new story takes place in 1897 as the United States moves towards
what will become the Spanish-American War. As the story gets moving, Sara Howard, derringer-toting private detective, is asking for the help of the group,
especially Kreizler, in solving the kidnapping of an infant.
But there are two big problems: her husband is a Spanish diplomat who does now want the crime reported and does not want his wife causing
trouble. And there is no ransom note.
Gradually, they figure out who took the baby but can’t locate the little girl. And it begins to appear that the captor, Libby Hatch, may have a history of killing children. As more information is gathered, they realize that Hatch is smarter and more evil than they originally thought.
So why does she do it? And how can a mother kill children? These questions are asked repeatedly as they try to understand her logic and behavior. Some of the answers they reach seem unsatisfactory but the discussions are fascinating at times.
The book does have its flaws. There is excessive foreshadowing, for one. I like surprises and when there are too many clues about what happens 200 pages later to an important character, well, that bugs me.
There are also parts that plod along. As with most books with more
than 600 pages, it could have been shorter without losing too much. The other book was shorter and read faster.
That said, though, Carr does a good job of adding another layer to his
story by taking us into the court room. The lawyer for Libby Hatch is
a young Clarence Darrow, who is initially dismissed as inexperienced and unknowledgeable. Oops.
The legal battle is engaging and fun to watch through the characters’ eyes.
Best of all, Carr lets the characters have more fun this time, particularly more light-hearted banter between them.
This makes the novel less grim and dreary overall. If you are looking for a good, engaging novel that crosses the customary lines dividing genres, try this book. And don’t let its size intimidate you — I read most of it in a weekend. My
eyes hurt but it was well worth it.