Caleb Carr

Books| Historical | Mystery | Thriller

The Alienist (1994), Angel of Darkness (1997)

The Alienist (1994)

Set in New York City in 1896

I read The Alienist soon after it came out, and then read the Angel of Darkness when that came out. And then there it ended, so I forgot about the books.

Apparently a TV show based on the book recently came out, and the ebook was super expensive. And there was a huge waitlist at the library. But I checked back and the waitlist was gone, so I re-read it.

First, I still find it a tiny bit odd that one of the characters is Theodore Roosevelt.

Grief was almost unbearable to Theodore, I'd always known that; whenever he had to come to grips with the death of someone close, it seemed he might not survive the struggle.

I've read plenty of historicals that had real people as characters, but they usually only played bit parts. TR wasn't a main character, but he made a lot of appearances. It was just… weird. But it was a fascinating time, when TR was trying to reform the NYC police.

Laszlo is an alienist, or an early psychologist (psychiatrist, really, since he also studied medicine) and he has become fascinated by those who commit terrible crimes and often plead insanity.

"They'll want him to be mad, of course," Laszlo mused, not hearing me. "The doctors here, the newspapers, the judges, they'd like to think that only a madman would shoot a five-year-old girl in the head. It creates certain… difficulties, if we are forced to accept that our society can produce sane men who commit such acts."

Another character is Sara, who wants to become one of the first female detectives, at a time when women had just been allowed to be secretaries.

Sara only clutched her bag tightly without a word; and when the two thugs in the bowlers appeared at the rear end of the hall, apparently sealing our fates, she reached into it. "Don't worry, John," she said confidently. "I won't let anything happen to you." And with that she withdrew a .45-caliber Army Model Colt revolver, with a four-and-a-half-inch barrel and pearl grips.

The victims of the serial killer were boys who had been forced into prostitution. Which brings up two interesting bits. First, about the gay bawdy houses in NYC at the time:

But what was more distinctive about the Hall, along with only a few other such places in town, was a near total lack of the secretiveness that usually marked homosexual dealings in the city. Released from the need to be in any way careful, Ellison's patrons cavorted raucously and spent freely, and the Hall did enormous business.

And the second about the way children were treated:

American society did not then generally recognize (as much of it still does not) that children might not be fully responsible for their own actions and decisions: childhood has never been viewed by most Americans as a separate and special stage of growth, fundamentally different from adulthood and subject to its own rules and laws. By and large children were and are seen as miniature adults, and according to the laws of 1896 if they wanted to abandon their lives to vice, that was their business— and their lookout.

And sadly, this was frightening timely.

The only thing the immigrants ought to be told is that they and their children had better obey the laws of this city. If they don't, nobody else can be held responsible for what happens. Maybe they'll find that point hard to swallow.

It was good, but wasn't quite as good as I remembered. Probably because I tend to prefer female main characters. But at least there wasn't any boinking!

Publisher: Random House

Rating: 8.5/10