Prior to the twentieth century, persons suffering from mental illness were thought to be “alienated”, not only from the rest of society but from their own true natures. Those experts who studied mental pathologies were therefore known as alienists.
Content/Trigger Warning: There are very graphic descriptions of the mutilations/violence/gore that happens to the victims in this book. There are multiple mentions of assault and rape and though it’s not too descriptive it does come up quite a bit. There are drugs and alcohol as well. Death. Lots of death and not just victims, you’ve been warned.
Still with me?
This is set in New York when Theodore Roosevelt was Police Commissioner, so it’s crime/thriller/mystery/historical fiction. And oh yes Teddy’s a character, it’s great.
Dr. Laszlo Kriezler is what they call ‘an Alienist’ in 1896, a psychologist. And though much of the story revolves around him and the investigation of the murders certainly revolves around him, the story is told from the point of view of his friend and Times reporter John S. Moore.
Blurb: The year is 1896. The city is New York. Newspaper reporter John Schuyler Moore is summoned by his friend Dr. Laszlo Kreizler—a psychologist, or “alienist”—to view the horribly mutilated body of an adolescent boy abandoned on the unfinished Williamsburg Bridge. From there the two embark on a revolutionary effort in criminology: creating a psychological profile of the perpetrator based on the details of his crimes. Their dangerous quest takes them into the tortured past and twisted mind of a murderer who will kill again before their hunt is over.
….It’s actually great being told from John’s point of view because John sometimes isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed, so you’ll get what the Doctor’s theorized, so will others in the posse and you watch John slowly click things into place. Don’t underestimate John though because he has a certain quality of vulnerable humanity that we don’t get to experience intimately with Laszlo.
Laszlo has cooked up an idea with Theodore to have his own investigation as the police are not able to figure this out on their own, remember it’s 1896, their standards were so much lower, haha, and also Alienists, especially progressive men of science like Laszlo were not accepted by the general public, so, it’s even better; a secret investigation. He’s given two Detective Sergeants from Theodore’s division, Marcus and Lucius, Theodore’s secretary and longtime friend of John Moore, Sara Howard (also a gun-totin’ badass who intends to prove that there should be women on the force). There’s also the cast of Laszlo’s servants which give you the insight into the good Doctor himself which he so often keeps hidden.
The book is gritty it deals with plights that people forget were happening in New York, poor immigrant boys were having to do whatever they could for money, boy whores, and this one focus on those that either simply dressed in drag or in truth were only boys in anatomical terms only. I also love that we have characters that have sympathy and without judging too, there is one point where this horrible dirty cop keeps referring to one of the victims as ‘it’ and it’s so horrifying and degrading and suddenly John Moore’s just like ‘I’ll take none of that shit, this child wasn’t an it.’
I think it’s really important to realize that children were seen as little adults legally back then, they were just allowed to do these things because people didn’t realize there was a difference in the way an adult’s mind worked and a child’s. Mental health was something akin to like mystical voodoo (I mean to be fair we could use a bit more progress in this area still today).
John is amazing in the way that he goes to investigate these seedy establishments and he doesn’t bother to hide his face or be ashamed, he’s there to help, and he doesn’t care what other people might think of his personal habits.
Sara Howard is refreshingly aromantic. She has goals, they don’t include men (or women) but you do get the feeling that there may have been the possibility of her and John it’s not the focal point of the story. The most we get is John’s internal conflict of feelings and even then it’s not consuming the story and taking away from the plot.
I’ll leave you to discover the other characters.
The great part of this is that Laszlo is able to see just how detrimental childhood is, that it is often the root of how a ‘monster’ comes to be and stops at nothing to get his answers. He wants a ‘why,’ he wants to understand so that he can help others and that he can solve the puzzles of the mind.
Anyway, I’m just freakin’ gushing like a fangirl.
They are chasing down a man who by all reason should be insane, and they are going up against the prejudices of society who don’t at first care much for these victims due to their backgrounds. They’re doing it all by having to put together what they can and make a picture of their own. There’s corruption to deal with as well, dirty cops, organized crime and the suspicious mindset of the average New Yorker as they see psychology as an evil and unholy thing.
It is a long read, pagewise, for a thriller like this, I really didn’t’ think it felt like it.
Overall I give The Alienist 4/5 coffee cups as you can see by the rating under the book. I look forward to reading book 2 and for those who are interested, it’s also a show. It’s on UK Netflix and I think it aired on TNT in the states.
If you enjoy mysteries/thrillers then you’ll probably want to give this one a look, also I’m always open for recs!!