In this day and age of television’s Dr. Phil and Dr. Bob Hartley (Bob Newhart), it’s hard to imagine that at one time psychologists were considered to be nothing but quacks. The entire science of psychology was considered suspect. In fact, I don’t believe psychology was considered a serious science until the likes of Carl Jung or Sigmund Freud hit the scene.
The belief that the so-called science of psychology could not be taken seriously is the basis for author Caleb Carr’s The Alienist. Published in 2006, it is the first in a two-part series featuring New York City psychologist Dr. Laszlo Kreizler. Psychologists were referred to at that time as alienists.
In Carr’s mystery novel, Dr. Laszlo and his colleagues try to figure out who is brutally murdering young transgender prostitutes, slicing them into small pieces. Normally a psychologist wouldn’t be asked to help solve such a case, but in 1896, when this novel takes place, Laszlo is a college buddy of then-Police-Commissioner Teddy Roosevelt. Still, Commissioner Roosevelt asks Dr. Laszlo and his friends to keep a low profile until the case is solved.
Carr’s use of Roosevelt in his novel is clever and I believe adds to the uniqueness of this mystery story. Laszlo uses psychological methods to try and figure out who could be committing these horrendous murders, and why.
In addition to the smattering of real historical characters among the fictional characters, I also liked that one of the members of this unique group of detectives is a smart and strong-willed woman. Though she is Roosevelt’s secretary, he recognizes her abilities and appoints her to the group.
Carr’s novel presents a vivid picture of New York City at the turn of the century. His writing is so realistic that I can feel the rain and smell the odors of the areas in which the murders take place. I enjoy being able to get a strong sense of place from an author’s words.
The book is long and reads slow. There were times when I felt as though many, many words could have been left out. Many, many scenes, in fact. Nevertheless, the ending was tricky and the characters were interesting and likable.
Good read for Victorian-era mystery lovers.