Rated Reads

The Alienist

by Caleb Carr

Rated: High

A serial killer has been targeting young boys who work as prostitutes and mutilating them in ritual fashion. But the killings have largely stayed under the radar in the New York City of 1896 because many in the city would prefer to avoid acknowledging the seamier aspects of life in their city exist. Then the police commissioner, Theodore Roosevelt, decides it’s time to tackle the problem by using an unconventional approach: he enlists the help of an “alienist,” Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, who studies mental pathology.

Kreizler and his small team of assistants — the narrator, a journalist; a female secretary at the police department who aspires to be a detective; two trustworthy brothers from within the ranks of detectives; and a few of Kreizler’s staff — are charged with secretly running a private investigation to find the killer by using what we now call “psychological profiling.” What makes this book different from other books about investigators trying to stop serial killers is its early setting when the idea of putting together a psychological picture of a killer was a bit preposterous.

The Alienist is fascinating as a mystery/thriller, as the killer continues to hurt boys and the team tries to stop the carnage, and as a puzzle in which the pieces slowly come together to lead the investigators to finally find and stop the killer. What adds to the reading entertainment are the characters and the details about the time and place. It’s a bit of a refresher on history, with interesting tidbits about what the city and its citizens were like then.

Rated: High, for six uses of strong language and occasional uses of milder language. There are fairly detailed descriptions of the way in which each victim is mutilated after being killed. The story focuses on a killer who targets boy prostitutes who make themselves up as girls and appeal to male clientele, and there is some talk of homosexuality and perversions. It’s reasonably detailed but at the same time could be much worse. There is speculation and then confirmation of a pitiable childhood of the killer, with some details of abuse, molestation and violence.

— Reviewed by Cathy Carmode Lim

Cathy Carmode Lim has been reviewing books for newspapers for about 20 years, two of which she was a book page editor. She founded Rated Reads in January 2008.

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Alienist