Friday, 17 July 2009

Fiction Book Review - The Alienist

The Alienist by Caleb Carr was bought for me for Christmas a couple of years back. The giver knew I like thrillers and crime shows on TV and also knew I was an avid reader. I guess they made a reasonable assumption based on that. Ironically this kind of crime thriller is something I rarely read. But if I'm given a book I will at least poke my nose between the covers to see what's there. I'm glad I did.

It's an interesting premise. It's 1896 in New York City and the Police Commissioner (Teddy Roosevelt no less) needs to catch a killer who is terrorising young male prostitutes (and by young I mean child) when most of his force just want to ignore these deaths as unimportant. He calls in his friend Doctor Lazlo Kreizler to help. Kreizler is an Alienist (that is a psychiatrist) at a time when Psychology is a science just finding it's feet and much disliked by the powers that be. He also assigns a couple of officers who have knowledge of new (and not legally accepted at this time) techniques like fingerprinting.

So basically it's a psychologist profiler and a forensics team trying to catch a serial killer. Uninspiring stuff except for the setting which adds a twist. Kreizler is making this up as he goes along - and you really feel that. And he and his team have to work in secrecy because people don't trust 'alienists' or the new forensics. That twist and the realisation of the setting is enough to elevate the story above your average crime thriller. The late 19th century was a time in transition. Science was marching on at an accelerating rate, women were starting to maneuver for suffrage and other rights and similar. The world was changing and people don't like change. And the setting is so beautifully evoked in this novel that you feel that same sense of uncertainity. And the characters are beautifully drawn as well, rich and vivid and at also perfect representative of the changes shaking the world.

But there's a problem - well several.

Caleb Cain is an historian - in the vivid authenticity of the setting it shows in a good way. There are times when it shows in a not so good way. That is to say he infodumps in a very obtrusive way. We get passages of unnecessary backstory and long explanations of the "new" techniques. Sometimes it reads more like a history book than a novel. At one point I was skimming and thinking 'enough of this, get me back to story'. This makes it a little hard to get into (fortunately it starts with an excellent hook that I bore with the turgid bit until it got going again).

He is also heavy handed with the foreshadowing which makes the twists unsurprising which is always unfortunate. Foreshadowing should make you slap your head because you missed it not spell it out.

So all in all The Alienist is good read - good enough that I want to read the sequel - but flawed in various important ways.

After due consideration I shall grant it 3.5 stars rounded down.

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