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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Notes From Underground

Good Sunday afternoon everyone, and thanks for checking out my very first book review!

Today we are celebrating the amazing life and work of one of the world’s greatest writers of all time: Fyodor Dostoevsky. And no, this not the day of his birth, or the anniversary of his debut novel; it isn’t annual “Dostoevsky” day or anything significant like that. I simply wanted to share with you my newfound interest in his novel Notes From Underground; I just finished reading it and completely fell in love.

But before I jump into the review, let’s talk really briefly about Ted (Fyodor is the Russian version of Theodore). His life just astounds me, honestly. Though he lived in dire poverty and suffered from epileptic seizures for a good part of his middle-aged career, he still managed to publish 15 novels within his lifetime. How crazy is that? After learning about his life and the hardships he underwent, I have an incredible amount of respect for him. How many times have I complained that there are never enough hours in the day to fit in writing? And yet here was a man who managed to devote several hours every day to cultivating his passion even whilst carrying the burden of financial pressure and physical illness!

Ted lived a life of extremes. Coming out of college, he joined a group of Romantic Socialist radicals who plotted the downfall of the Russian Tsar, which eventually led to his arrest and mock execution. He was promptly sent to Siberia, a merciful alternative to the death sentence, where he served for several years. After his return home, he was a strikingly different man; abandoning the Egotistical/Socialist views of his youth, he committed the rest of his life to writing down his observations of human nature and mankind’s innate tendency towards evil. What made him so remarkable, however, was his empathy towards young radicals. While most writers of his age were advocating for harsher punishment on those young people who were intoxicated with the romantic ideals of Socialism, Dostoevsky was sympathetic. Though he disagreed with their ideas, labeling them unrealistic and even harmful to society, he understood, and even commended, their inner yearnings for a better world. Dostoevsky became a great role model for the young people he came in contact with, and his books, though addressed to a past century, still hold great significance in our present day.

Notes From Underground is the story of “the underground man”, a man at war with himself. A walking contradiction, the underground man constantly bemoans his faults and failings and despises himself for them, yet remains unable, or shall we say, unwilling, to accept the remedy for his problems. The beginning of book I opens with the underground man lamenting his “sickness” yet refusing to ask for help: “No, sir, I refuse to be treated out of wickedness” (Dostoevsky, Part I, 3). For to accept the cure, he must first acknowledge his failings, his passions, his vulnerabilities, and his vanity and pride; to do so would contradict his insistent belief that man is governed by reason alone. He glorifies the Russian romantics who cling to science and reason (“He’s a broad man, our romantic, and the foremost knave of all knaves…the romantic is always intelligent” [Dostoevsky, 46]). It is precisely this idea of the intelligent romantic that both fascinates and tortures him. For though he is convicted of his faults, he stubbornly refuses to let go of his ever-inflating ego. In the end, it is the underground man’s pride, and unrealistic ideals for humankind, which seal his fate and doom him to the isolated underground of his mind.

At the heart of Notes from Underground is this idea of mankind’s innate selfishness. Man is not a cold, calculating machine that operates on reason alone, as the underground man consents in Part I, pg. 31, (“he [man] would still not come to reason, but would do something contrary on purpose, solely out of ingratitude alone”), but rather a passionate and violent creature that, when left to his own devises, will never be satisfied. “I think the best definition of man is: a being that goes on two legs and is ungrateful” (Dostoevsky, 29). The rational egoist claims that if every individual strives to satisfy his or her own desires, everyone will get along in perfect harmony. Dostoevsky shows the folly in this lofty ideal through the split personality of his underground man, the man who thinks himself above everyone else because he reads a lot of books on romantic socialism, yet doesn’t know how to come to terms with his personal failings and the failings of the people around him. We see this in Part II when he attends a dinner party with his old school “friends” and he thinks to himself: “‘Lord, is this any company for me!… These oafs think they’ve done me an honor by giving me a place at their table; they don’t realize that it’s I, I, who am doing the honor, and not they me!’” (Dostoevsky, 73). In convincing himself of his own superiority, he loses the ability to interact with other people around him.

              Notes from Underground does not end on a happy note (no pun intended). The underground man humiliates himself in front of his friends, scorns the love of the young girl Liza, with whom he might have finally found redemption, and concludes his monologue with a tone of despair and hopelessness. The man was never able to let go of his vanity, and it consumed him.

However, this book is not meant to be depressing; it’s meant to be illuminating. If you read between the lines, you will find that Dostoevsky provides the answers you may or may not have even known you were looking for. And that is precisely what makes this novel so beautiful. In a world of seeming discord and depression and all things BAD, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. At the end of the novel, the protagonist is given the power to escape the “prison” in which he dwells (by accepting Liza’s forgiveness and outstretched hand), but, (spoiler alert!) he chooses to cling on to his pride rather than take that giant leap of faith and exit the underground.

The underground is not locked from the outside as we might like to believe; it is locked from the inside. The underground man, and thereby we, the readers, have the power to escape. So Dostoevsky leaves us with this choice: will we choose to turn the key?

Notes From Underground is a complex work of art that you do not want to miss out on!  I am so grateful for my professor who introduced me to the wonderful world of Dostoevsky, and I hope you have been encouraged to give his work a try.

Happy Reading!

-Obstinate Owl