When the severally mutilated body of a murdered prostitute is posed and left for a gruesome public display, newly appointed New York City police commissioner Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt decides to forgo normal procedure and brings in an alienist — Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, an expert in the burgeoning field of psychology and abnormal behavior — to apply his trade and help solve this bizarre homicide. Together, facing both danger, doubt, and ridicule at every turn, these two crusaders gather a small team of experts on the local criminal elements (on both sides of the law) and the most advanced forensic techniques, and then start poking and prodding at the dark underbelly of the city, trying to figure out what makes the killer tick and flush him out before this butcher strikes again.
Truthfully, author Caleb Carr’s The Alienist is about 50/50 split between psychological thriller and history lesson. And speaking truthfully again, whichever way you come at it — as a mystery lover or history buff — you’ve stumbled right into a goldmine. Carr paints a fascinating and minutely detailed canvas of turn of the century New York and its colorful denizens, which, contrary to what you might think, does nothing to distract from the plot as our protagonists methodically piece together clues and draw conclusions from the killer’s actions but serves, instead, to enhance the proceedings. Sure, some authors can bring a reader into their books as a casual observer from a safe distance, but Carr has a knack for putting you into the scene with all the sights and sounds and smells found therein — none of them all that pleasant.
It’s real. It’s happening. It’s a whole new spin on the phrase “social studies.” And, my friends, you’re along for a wild and rewarding ride if you just crack it open and take a look.