Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Alienist—Caleb Carr

"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." (33)

A friend of mine recently recommended that I read this particular title, and coincidentally enough, I had picked it up at Half Price Books for $2.00 probably a month before. After taking a brief break from "adult" books, I came back to this one.

For a history lover, something as historically rich as this book (even as a historical novel) was a delight to read. Carr sets us up in New York just prior to the turn of the twentieth century. Our main characters are Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, an "alienist" or psychologist as we might call him, and John Schuyler Moore, a police reporter for the Times. Following a rather gruesome murder of a young boy, Moore is brought into the investigation of what turns out to be a series of murders. Due to the personal information about the victims, the interest in actually solving the crimes is not exactly great in the police force. However, Dr. Kreizler comes up with an idea: by analyzing the crimes, perhaps they can put together information about the perpetrator. This was before the time that this was a generally accepted practice; it's practically par for the course now. Kreizler and Moore are joined by police detective brothers Lucius and Marcus Isaacson and Sara Howard, one of the first female employees of the police department. They discuss the emerging fields of fingerprinting and handwriting analysis in addition to the psychological profile they put together.

This book was satisfying to read on so many different levels. First and foremost, it was spectacularly crafted: thoughtful, fast-paced, suspenseful, informative. Everything I could possibly want from my historical fiction, and more.

Second, as long as I can remember, I've had a morbid curiosity and fascination with serial killers and sociopaths. I'm not the only one; I've often wondered if we perpetuate the existence of serial killers as a society by sensationalizing them. We have books, movies, TV shows, all focused on murderers, sociopaths. Even pondering this question has an impact on the answer. But Carr also seems intrigued by the question: how can two men (or women) with similar backgrounds have such divergent lives? What makes one man a normal, contributing member of society and another a murderer? It's very interesting.

As the above quote reflects, Kreizler believes that the instance of actual insanity is far less than previously represented. He posited that almost all criminals were created as a result of their experiences, experiences which then informed their criminal lifestyles. Society in general finds it hard to fathom that we can create people who have all of their faculties, who are reasoning adults, and who still feel a compulsion towards crime. It's interesting, also, to consider our desire for easy answers and our need for a scapegoat. It's easy to say, "Oh, that man's crazy, and that's why he committed those crimes." It is considerably more difficult to consider what the reasons behind those actions may be, most especially because it might require some empathy for characters we find so implicitly evil.

Great book. It was thought-provoking and historically vivid, with a taste of one of my favourite Roosevelt's thrown in. Definitely adding it to my list of favourites.