The Alienist by Caleb Carr: Book Review

About a year ago, I stumbled across a wonderful little gem of a book that has since been held in high esteem upon my shelves: The Alienist, by award-winning author Caleb Carr. Let me tell you, this book stole my attention from page one to the very end, and has ceased to remain fixed in my memory as one of the most exciting mystery thrillers I’ve ever read. Full to bursting with adventure, intrigue, horror, and suspense, The Alienist is a must-read. Set in late 19th century Manhattan, The Alienist follows the adventures of New York Times reporter John Moore and his friend Dr. Lazlo Kreizler as they attempt to put a stop to a string of child murders the likes of which have never been yet seen in NY. With the help of police sergeants Lucius and Marcus Isaacson, and bold, outspoken secretary Sarah Howard, Moore and Kreizler utilize new-fangled techniques in the world of human psychology and forensics to uncover the criminal’s shrouded past, which, the Dr. insists, is the key to discovering the killer’s present identity. Interweaving important historical details into the story, Carr brings to light a time in our not too distant past when the term “alienist” was just beginning to emerge and “murderer” was synonymous with “psychopath”. Painting a realistic portrait of the seamy undergrounds of New York and the dark and foggy streets above, Carr unravels a tale as frightening as it is accurate. I so thoroughly enjoyed this book and Carr’s descriptive style that for a while I had a difficult time reading anything with as much pleasure.
Imagine my delight, then, when I discovered, just a few weeks ago, that Moore’s and Kreizler’s adventures did not end with TheAlienist, but continued into a sequel, The Angel of Darkness! I was so excited that I immediately stopped reading the book I was currently on (I know, it’s a crime; but priorities, people!) and dived right in. Unlike the first book, The Angel of Darkness centers around a woman killer, a sadistic infant murderess and kidnapper who has escaped police notice for years. Libby Hatch is her name, and just as the title suggests, she plays the wolf in sheep’s clothing, having gotten away with countless crimes before Moore and the gang become aware of her presence. The entire plot leads up to, and centers around, Libby’s court case, in which Kriezler and his friends attempt to convince the public of her guilt. Though there are quite a few differences between this book and the first, The Angel of Darkness provides just as much a nail-biting climax as the first, keeping me on the edge of my seat until the last page.
Of course, I had mixed feelings about cracking open the sequel to a book I had really enjoyed; I kept thinking, what if this one wasn’t as good as the first? I didn’t want my opinion of The Alienist to be tainted by a second installment. I was especially wary when I realized the novel was not written from Moore’s perspective, as had been the case with the first book, but rather from a young 13-year old boy named Stevie. A wayward youth adopted by Dr. Kriezler, Stevie was a minor character in The Alienist, having little “page-time” (is that a word…?). Where is Moore?? I kept asking. I felt cheated! However, my fears were quickly put to rest; I loved seeing this mystery unfold through the eyes of Stevie. He is such an honest, caring, and funny character that my love for him soon outstripped my love for Moore (which is saying something). Though overall, I enjoyed the plot developments of the first book better, there were certain aspects of The Alienist that were better fleshed out in The Angel of Darkness. Something that Carr really tried to covey in the first book was the significance, or lack thereof, of women’s roles in society during the 19th century. Using Sara’s character, a secretary working undercover with Moore and Kriezler on the murder case, Carr demonstrated the many obstacles facing women who desired more in life than the roles society delegated them to. I really appreciated the way Carr emphasized this theme in the second book, as Sara took center stage in many of the investigations and was one of the biggest contributors to the Libby Hatch case. Carr did a fantastic job showing the backwards views society had of women during this time, while still maintaining the integrity the story.
Though there is so much more to be said about this wonderful novel, I think it would be best to just let you read it yourself 😊 Carr is a fantastic writer and storyteller, well educated in areas of science, history, and criminal behavior; I have no doubt you will be immediately sucked into the eerie, gaslit world he has brought back to life.
Happy reading everyone!

 

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