One Pound, Eight Ounces: A Review of Caleb Carr’s The Alienist (by Bethany)

Total Book Weight Lost (TBWL) So Far: 1 pound, 8 ounces

I have a feeling that this book weight loss challenge is not going to be as impressive as I had anticipated. This book is a chunker: it’s a hardback that I obtained through an online book swapping group a couple of years ago, and it’s just under 500 pages long. I thought sure it would weigh at least two pounds, but like I said, I’m not good at estimating these things. Nevertheless, I am very happy that I read this book and probably wouldn’t have done so (for a while anyway) if I hadn’t challenged myself to read my heaviest books first.

The Alienist is an intellectual/historical murder mystery along the lines of Matthew Pearl’s The Dante Club: it blends fictional characters with historical personages and not only depicts the life of New York City in 1896 but also spends a great deal of time delving into the ideas of that era. The “alienist” of the title is Dr. Laszlo Kreizler; an alienist is a late nineteenth-century term for what we would call a psychiatrist – a medical doctor whose specialty is both the physiology of the brain and the actions of the more enigmatic “mind.” At that time, people who were (or seemed) insane were believed to be “alienated”; thus, doctors who studied and treated these patients were called “alienists.” (Keep in mind as you read that by the very definition of the word it is impossible to be “alienated” in a vacuum: one can be alienated from other individuals or from society or from God or from other parts of one’s own personality – implicit in the term is the existence of some standard of normalcy that the alienated person cannot access. Following this logic, there can be no such thing as sanity or its opposite in the absence of other individuals. Interesting, no?). Kreizler enjoys a very uneasy relationship with both the medical establishment and New York society in general because he advocates the idea that psychology is determined by context. In other words, he believes that each person is shaped by the world he lives in – and most profoundly by the world he lived in in childhood. This idea will not surprise anyone reading this book today, as this idea has become such a central tenet of modern psychology that it is hard to imagine anyone questioning it. However, this idea was radical in the late nineteenth century for several reasons. First, it contradicted that century’s reigning voice in psychology, William James, who believed that the most important determinant in psychology is each individual’s free will. Second, when put into actual practice, the idea of context implies that a child’s parents may not always be qualified to raise that child – and in this novel Kreizler runs an institute for troubled children and does sometimes insist that children be separated from their parents in order to be treated. Opponents of Kreizler’s methods accuse him of undermining the idea of personal responsibility: by attributing a person’s antisocial or destructive or disruptive behavior to childhood coping patterns or other elements of context, Kreizler’s theories imply that we are not always responsible for our own behavior in the sense that both William James’ theories and the longstanding assumptions of Western society have always asserted. Other opponents accuse him of undermining the sanctity of the family (a term that has far from disappeared in the past century – anyone watched Fox News lately?) by suggesting that civil and medical authorities might sometimes need to supplant religious and familial authorities in determining the proper care of children.

Most of Kreizler’s theories will elicit a gigantic DUH from modern readers – but, of course, that’s the point. One of the best things about this book is the way Carr manages to bring his readers – equipped with their modern assumptions – along for the ride as perceptions of psychological makeup and behavioral adaptation shifted and changed from their nineteenth-century to their twentieth and twenty-first century models. Reading this novel, I felt as if I was feeling my way gradually, through constant questioning and experimentation, into ideas about the mind and the personality that essentially I have held all my life.

The first-person narrator of this novel is Kreizler’s childhood friend John Schuyler Moore, a crime journalist for the New York Times. Both Kreizler and Moore grew up in affluent New York society. They took courses with William James at Harvard (although Kreizler already had a medical degree when he did so), where they also became friends with Theodore Roosevelt, who in this novel has recently been appointed Police Commissioner of New York City and is beginning his famous campaign to eliminate corruption and graft from that city’s police department. Moore is somewhat adrift (or alienated?) personally, having recently broken off an engagement to a society woman and distanced himself in the process from most of his family and from many of the people he grew up with.

Early in the novel, Theodore Roosevelt enlists both Moore and Kreizler to help him investigate a series of murders that are troubling the police department. Moore is called to the scene of a murder in which a young male prostitute wearing female clothes and makeup has been killed and mutilated – his throat has been cut, he has been castrated, chunks of his flesh have been sliced away, and his eyes have been gouged out. As a police reporter, Moore has covered violent crimes before, but he has never encountered anything like this murder because the entire journalistic establishment – the respectable Times but also such reform-minded journalists as the historical Jacob Riis and Lincoln Steffens – refuses to admit that male child prostitution even exists in New York City. Deprived of parental advocacy for whatever reason – most often death or abandonment – the young boys who turn to prostitution in this novel are essentially undefended by anyone in the adult world, as dangerous crime bosses who profit from their work routinely bribe police officers to ignore crimes against these children. Strengthening the city’s social services to protect these children and prosecuting criminals who exploit and hurt them are two of Roosevelt’s many goals as the city’s new Police Commissioner.

Roosevelt can’t give the appearance of openly investigating the murder of child prostitutes – his enemies among the city’s wealthy and powerful would use any investigation of this kind as an excuse to fire him – so instead he enlists Moore and Kreizler to conduct the investigation in his stead. Assisting them are Sara Howard, an independent woman – also a childhood friend of Moore and Kreizler – who is determined to be the first female detective on the police force; Marcus and Lucius Isaacson, brothers and colleagues on the police force who are known for their pioneering work in forensics; and a host of teenagers and young adults who are now in Kreizler’s employ after his institute rescued them from abusive homes. This team uses the Isaacsons’ forensic skills, Moore’s skills and contacts as an investigative journalist, and Kreizler’s theories about behavioral theory as a matter of context to do what today we would call “profiling”: essentially, they create a composite sketch of what the killer of the child prostitutes is probably like, and then they search the city’s slums, brothels, mental hospitals, and other likely locations for people who match their profile.

This process of profiling takes up the bulk of the novel, of course, and it is plenty compelling. I’m not going to relate every detail, nor am I going to tell you about the killer they eventually find, but I do want to write a bit more about some of the issues raised by this novel and about how I responded to it. First, I want to say this: I did not read this book like a reviewer. Ever since we’ve started this blog, I’ve noticed my reading habits changing. I annotate more, or if annotation isn’t an option because I’m reading a library book or a friend’s book or a book that I want to give away I use Post-its to keep track of my thoughts and to mark passages I want to discuss in my review. This is the first time in several months that I’ve sat down to review a book without the help of written notes, underlined passages, dogeared pages, and/or bookmarks to help me remember which parts of the book were most important to me. I surrendered to this book. I read it slowly and carefully, but only because I wanted to be sure to follow every detail so I could try to solve the murder alongside the detectives, not because I was already mapping out my review in my head, as I often do. I read most of it in bed, not even realizing until I thought about it that I’ve barely been reading in bed at all lately, since notetaking and annotating are more easily accomplished from an upright position.

Bookblogging follows its own version of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle: because I know that my thoughts about books will be observed, I have changed as a reader. But now, for one book read over the space of about four days, I’ve changed back.

In this novel, Kreizler and Moore and their colleagues attract a lot of attention through their investigation. Not only does the murderer himself begin to watch them as they close in and delight in misdirecting them away from his trail, but a variety of New York personages – both fictional and historical – take an interest in the investigation as well. At one point, Kreizler and Moore are kidnapped at gunpoint and taken to a meeting of a variety of crime bosses and high-ranking Catholic and Episcopal Church officials and U.S. Postal Service authorities (long story) that takes place at the home of J.P. Morgan. What’s revealed at this meeting shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise to any thinking person, although it served as an important object lesson to the detectives in the novel. First, this scene is a reminder of the fact that there are always a number of powerful but insidious forces that have an interest in maintaining the status quo. In the case of this scene, Morgan himself really isn’t hostile toward the investigation, but he is being courted by some of Roosevelt’s enemies and by church authorities and crime bosses who would like to see the reality of the world of child prostitution kept under wraps. Second, Morgan – because of his own deep insecurities, both historically and in the novel, over his facial deformity – provides an interesting counterpoint to the idea, constantly emphasized in this novel, that we are deeply influenced by the ways we are perceived by others. If I had to identify the single most important thing that the twentieth century contributed to the world of ideas, it is the idea that objective reality – if it exists – is fundamentally irrelevant. There is no reality except what is perceived through a series of both literal and figurative lenses – and the constant images of both eyes and cameras in this novel reinforce this idea effectively.

Quite a bit later in the novel, when Kreizler has decided to recuse himself from the investigation for personal reasons, Moore runs into Paul Kelly – a crime boss that I believe is a historical figure as well as a character in the novel. Kelly has appeared throughout the novel, usually as a threatening figure who has an interest in protecting himself and other crime bosses who control the underworld of child prostitution, but also sometimes in a helpful role – more than once Kelly appears when Moore and Kreizler are in danger and spirits them away. It starts to become clear that Kelly is interested in using his status among New York criminals for some good, and the novel suggests that the historical Kelly was an important figure in the organized labor movement in the decades after the novel is set. At his solitary meeting with Moore, Kelly asks Moore to conjecture why no criminals have bothered Moore and the other detectives after Kreizler decided to leave the case. “Which of you represents the greatest danger to this city?” Kelly asks Moore before he walks away. While it’s not unpleasantly heavy-handed, I identified this moment as the novel’s “theme statement”; in other words, while the New York establishment is threatened by Roosevelt’s commitment to fairness and egalitarianism and the police department is threatened by detectives like the Isaacsons who use forensic methods of detection instead of strongarming others through graft and bullying, the greatest threat to the status quo in this novel is Kreizler – the man who believes that society has both a responsibility to see that children are raised in safe surroundings and a self-interested stake in making sure that this process happens. Kreizler’s enemies accuse him of denying that human beings are responsible for their actions, but these enemies only halfway understand what Kreizler is after. What Kreizler’s work really demonstrates is that human beings are responsible for each other.

And that, of course, is the point of pretty much everything.

So yes, this is a good book. On the one hand, it is a murder mystery with which you can luxuriate in bed over a long weekend or on a plane flight or – well – pretty much anywhere. It made me forget that I’m a bookblogger – and that’s no small feat, let me tell you, since I obsess about this blog quite a bit more than is probably healthy. And while I wouldn’t say I learned anything new from this book, I did spend a lot of time thinking about the assumptions I’ve inherited because of the time and place I was born and about how those assumptions have slowly evolved from ideas that were once considered radical and dangerous.

This entry was posted in Authors, Bethany's FBCWLC, Caleb Carr, Fiction - general, Fiction - Historical, Reviews by Bethany. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to One Pound, Eight Ounces: A Review of Caleb Carr’s The Alienist (by Bethany)

  1. Valerie Remington says:

    I read this book several months ago. It was fasinating and scary. I had trouble falling asleep when I was reading it in bed. I ended up buying his book following the “Alienist”. I believe it is called “The Angel of Darkness”.

    • lfpbe says:

      Hi Valerie – I have The Angel of Darkness too and want to read it, but my copy is a tiny mass market paperback and I’m trying to get rid of as many hardbacks as possible before I move. I might have to make an exception for that one, though!

  2. Coinkindinky…I read this book when it originally came out. I was working in an independent bookstore and reading a lot of ‘new releases’ in order to make recommendations to our customers. I remember surrendering myself to it in the same way you describe. And, as Valerie Remington states, I had a lot of trouble sleeping while I was reading it. It’s a stunner!

    • lfpbe says:

      I didn’t have the sleep issue, myself. I think I’m a little jaded. Carr has a new novel coming out in a couple of weeks that strikes me as… well as not interesting at all, unfortunately. I’ll take a look at it when it’s released and will be happy to be proved wrong.

  3. Pingback: Yarn Along (by Bethany) | Postcards From Purgatory

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