A murder mystery set in the late 19th century in New York City, the story line feels plotted. An alienist is the forerunner of a psychiatrist or psychologist. The principal character, Dr. Kreizler, is surreptitiously engaged by a young muckraking Police Commissioner, Theodore Roosevelt, purging his Department and the City of corruption, while trying to solve serial killings of young male prostitutes. An investigative reporter, an emancipated secretary bent on being a detective, and two Jewish detectives ostracized for their forensic approach to criminal investigations, round out the cast.
Caleb Carr is a historian and the novels shines in its description of New York City of that vintage. For a native New Yorker this was the treat. Implicit in the novel is the perennial issue whether mental illness is a product of environment, biology, or both. The plot through Dr. Kreizler’s final analysis takes a preliminary side, but leaves room for future discovery. Besides William James, the novel might have explored in more depth psychology theories at the time, but it remains principally plot focused.
One point made at the end of the novel did resonate with me. In speaking of the depraved killer, Dr. Kreizler says “they are the easy repositories of all that is dark in our very social world. But the things that helped make [the killer] what he was? Those, we tolerate. Those we even enjoy…” You only have to turn on, or read, the news to know he speaks the truth.
The novel does not bore, even though you know you are being led.