Book Club Selection for January 2020- The Alienist
by Calem Carr
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 searching for a serial killer: 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.
Fast-paced and riveting, infused with historical detail, The Alienist conjures up Gilded Age New York, with its tenements and mansions, corrupt cops and flamboyant gangsters, shining opera houses and seamy gin mills. It is an age in which questioning society’s belief that all killers are born, not made, could have unexpected and fatal consequences.
“[A] delicious premise . . . Its settings and characterizations are much more sophisticated than the run-of-the-mill thrillers that line the shelves in bookstores.”—The Washington Post Book World
“Mesmerizing.”—Detroit Free Press
“The method of the hunt and the disparate team of hunters lift the tale beyond the level of a good thriller—way beyond. . . . A remarkable combination of historical novel and psychological thriller.”—The Buffalo News
“Gripping, atmospheric . . . intelligent and entertaining.”—USA Today
“A high-spirited, charged-up and unfailingly smart thriller.”—Los Angeles Times
“Keeps readers turning pages well past their bedtime.”—San Francisco Chronicle
NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • NOW A TNT ORIGINAL SERIES • “A first-rate tale of crime and punishment that will keep readers guessing until the final pages.”—Entertainment Weekly
“Caleb Carr’s rich period thriller takes us back to the moment in history when the modern idea of the serial killer became available to us.”—The Detroit News
When The Alienist was first published in 1994, it was a major phenomenon, spending six months on the New York Times bestseller list, receiving critical acclaim, and selling millions of copies. This modern classic continues to be a touchstone of historical suspense fiction for readers everywhere.
About the Author:
Caleb Carr is an American novelist and military historian. He has worked at the Council on Foreign Relations, Foreign Affairs Quarterly, MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History, and taught military history, including World Military History, the History of American Intelligence, and Insurgency/Counterinsurgency, at Bard College.
He was born in Manhattan, and for the majority of his life he lived on the Lower East Side of that city, spending his summers and many weekends at his family's home in Cherry Plain, New York. In 2000, he purchased his own property, known as Misery Mountain, in Cherry Plain; and in 2006 he moved there permanently.
He was educated at St. Luke's School and Friends Seminary in New York, Kenyon College, and New York University, where he gained a degree in Military and Diplomatic History.
He is the author of ten books, several of which, most notably the historical thriller The Alienist, have become international best-sellers and prize-winners, and his work has been translated into over two dozen languages. His book, The Lessons of Terror, concerned one of his non-fiction areas of specialization, terrorism, and became a controversial yet standard volume in the literature of that subject.
He has appeared before the House Joint Subcommittee on National Security, was a featured speaker at a closed-door Defense Department conference on the War on Terrorism, and made regular appearances on almost all television networks during the American invasion of Iraq.
Asked what fiction writers have influenced him the most, he includes Edgar Allan Poe, Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, Jules Verne, Rudyard Kipling, William Gibson, and Michael Crichton.
His non-fiction influences he cites as "eclectic and too numerous to list."
Carr has also worked extensively in the theater, and in movies and televison; in the latter capacity, he spent several years in Los Angeles; his last feature script attracted Liam Neeson, John Frankenheimer, and Vittorio Storaro to sign on; when Frankenheimer suddenly and tragically died, however, the project fell apart, and Carr returned to New York.
In 2015, Paramount Television announced that it would create a series based on The Alienist for Turner Network Television (TNT), the first season to be directed by Cary Fukunaga.
He now lives with his Siberian cat, Masha. She is, he says, "very beautiful and very ferocious."
CG Book Club Review:
The Alienist- Review
Quote- "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 know as alienists."
“The Alienist” was quite an undertaking as our January selection for bookclub. I am trying to think of the right word for this book: detailed, tedius at times, gross, shocking, engrossing, searing with a little Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Perot type qualities. The book is probably all of the above. The author is a former military historian and it shows. At times you might think there is so much detail that the author is showing off a bit.
This book was a little difficult to get into for the first quarter to third off the book. I do not want this to take away from the book. This is the story of a gruesome serial killer in the late 1800s who is preying on young boys who are prostitutes pretending to be girls. One of our membeers commented wanting to know why are we reading this book? But once you get into the pace of this book and get accustomed to the detailed descriptions that the author uses, you can really see the 1894 jump of the pages of this book into your mind.
I have to say that I had hoped that the world that was created in this book was not real and that the types of the things these young boys went through was fiction. So of course, I had to research the matter to determine that the facts of the book are historically accurate. Now I am not saying that this is a true story, but I am saying that the world that exists in this book was the world of 1894. This will make you appreciate child labor laws.
Our protagonists set up a team to try to track down this gruesome serial killer who is preying on young male prostitutes. Because of the time setting, the papers will not even print stories about the killings. The first killing set out in the book is so gruesome that it could turn off some. As the book moves forward we learn that this is not actually the first such killing, but is the fourth. The police seem to be covering up the killings. The two large religions of the time are assisting in the cover up. As the poorest elements of society learn that their boys are being targeted, there are angry mobs. But are the mobs orchestrated?
There are multiplle characters that are based upon historical figures of the time. Theodore Roosevelt is treated favorably as a member of the team pushing to find the murderer while he is the Commission over the police in New York (Roosevelt actually held such a position). There are many other historical characters who make appearances favorably and not favorably in the story.
If this book works it is because it protrays the team as doing something that had never been done before and that is attempting to develop a psychological profile of the serial killer. It is done very well. The things that they are trying are convincing and show the roots of what will be fleshed out in the future in the study of mental illness.
The book also highlights a few myths that were thought to be true which ended up not being correct. The most memorable was the thought that when you died, your eyes still contained the last image that the dead person saw. Our protagonist's team attempts to take pictures of the eye to reveal this final "picture" and determine that the myth was not true.
Also, the final confrontation had several twists and turns that were not expected. I think the concesus from our discussions were that they were a little over the top.
I recommend that after you have completed the book, re-read the first chapter. The book is written as a reflection following the first chapter. There are comments and references that are made that you may not fully catch or fully understand until you know the full story. I reread the first chapter after I completed the book and it came off warmer than it did originally. I think it was because I had a much better understanding of each of the characters as I re-read it. I think this would be a good read for October meetings of your Book Club.
Finally, the book has been used as the basis of a TNT series by the same name.
Ken W. Good