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Caleb Carr
The Alienist
Random House
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 0-679-41779-6
Publication Date: 01-10-1994
496 Pages; $22.00
Date Reviewed: 08-27-2002
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2002

Index:  Mystery  General Fiction  Horror

The historical mystery was once a pretty moribund sub-genre. Sure, known genre authors such as Anne Perry operated there, and the occasional dabbler such as Mark Frost would bring life with the publication of a novel like 'The List of Seven'. But they weren't big business and they weren't big money — until the 1994 publication of Caleb Carr's 'The Alienist'. With a single novel Carr electrified the reading world like no other author since Thomas Harriss released 'Silence of the Lambs'. 'The Alienist' had an appeal that crossed boundaries from science fiction readers, who could revel in Carr's 'world-building', to horror readers, who found terror in his dark cityscapes and casual violence, to mystery readers, who could not turn the pages fast enough to find what would happen next, to readers of historical fiction, who could feast on Carr's rich details and effectively organic use of real historical figures in a fictional framework. Carr followed 'The Alienist' up with 'The Angel of Darkness', another story with the same characters and setting that to this reader was nearly as good, though not as original. There's certainly nothing like the first time you encounter a great fictional creation, and there are few creations with the verve and grit of Doctor Laszlo Kreitzler.

Set in New York City in 1896, 'The Alienist' begins as Theodore Roosevelt, then Police Commissioner of New York, enlists the aid of Kreitzler and John Schuyler Moore, a crime reporter for the New York Times. A series of murders of adolescent boys is causing a rising panic in the city. With Sara Howard, a police secretary, they will work to determine who is killing the boys by determining why the boys are being killed. It's nothing less than the birth of profiling as it is known today, in a dank and musty city of yesterday.

The potential for trite walk-on history and anachronistic problem solving is enormous in 'The Alienist', but Carr's ultra-detailed and dense storytelling style overcome these traps before the reader even realizes that they could be problems. What Carr does is to present us with a picture of the city so detailed and so different from our own sensibilities that it seems almost as if the novel is a work of fantasy or science fiction. Dripping with sewage and slime, the streets running with offal and blood, 'The Alienist' presents a picture that the writer builds brick by brick. It all seems so unusual that the reader never has the chance to question Carr's authoritative picture. It's a gripping creation.

Carr's created world is peopled by characters every bit as detailed as their environment. Kreitzler's science is met with doubt and skepticism by most he meets. He's a complicated character, self-conflicted and looked down on by his fellow scientists. John Schuyler Moore tells the story, naturally, and his reportage is not without coloration by his character. Sara is a bit on the anachronistic side, but Carr's skillful, detailed presentation and that overwhelming environment go a long way to compensate for this small sin.

Of course the model for all this Victoriana is Sherlock Holmes, and Carr does an excellent job of skirting the edges of legend. He adds many layers of detail and deceit to dirty up proceedings practically beyond recognition; but it's impossible not to recognize the sources. However, Carr's update actually enhances the enjoyment of his proceedings. If Doyle has not manages (with the help of Houdini) to escape death and bring us more tales of Sherlock Holmes, then Carr's creation will certainly measure up to and extend the legacy. It helps that he's got a plot as deliciously complex as his world, and his ability to unveil the mystery seems unusually strong. It's possible that the novel could be trimmed here and there, but the upshot of such trimming would inevitably be the complaint that it seemed to be missing something. The chances are that you've recently read one of several novels that either harkens to or hopes for the success of Carr's 'The Alienist'. If you enjoy dark, dense thrillers that feature distressing serial killers, then 'The Alienist' should be on your to-buy — or to be re-read — list.

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