I actually first heard of the Alienist when it first came out. I think it was a favorable book review in Time magazine or something. Never got around to picking it up, not a huge fan of mysteries, but somehow the name of the book stuck with me. The cover of the book did as well, it was so foreboding it just seemed to etch itself indelibly in my memory. So fast forward to 2008, I’m at Fools’ Cap 2008 and they have a magnificently large collection of free books. One of these books is the Alienist. I snatched the book and being thoroughly burned out on life, decided to take these past few days to work my way through it.
I liked it. It’s a book that definitely fits into the Sherlock Holmes mould, but with a distinctly historical take on things. I would have to say that is one of the most memorable things about the book, it has a very real sense of place and time. Turn of the century New York City. I’m sure if you looked up all the famous people and places they would all check out. But there is no sense of urgency to do so. The authenticity is evident as one reads and that feeling is only reinforced the further one goes into the story. The story itself is a little lacking in passion, and perhaps in 1994 was more shocking, but after the critical and popular success of Silence of the Lambs and the embedding of Hannibal Lector into the collective consciousness, the story revolving around serials killers loses its punch.
It would have helped if the characters in the book had more gusto, but while not irritating, I didn’t feel any particular attachment to them. Dr. Kreizler in particular seemed to lack real depth. He has some weaknesses thrown in to make him appear less of the superman than he is, but they ring false. This is a man of great powers who may only really be foiled by himself. Much more time could have been given to Sara and her relationship with Moore, but she also ends up being a stock “strong woman” character with little depth. The two brothers thankfully do not become Jewish mockeries, but are not given a lot to do.
The biggest misstep in the book is the secondary plot involving the police, the church, and J.P. Morgan( ?!!? ). It really has no bearing on the plot, and while proving an apt red herring in the 1st half of the book, the reveal is COMPLETELY wasted. I can’t say it any other way, it was a real letdown to find out what was actually going on. I suppose it was done to prevent the book from being a “straight” serial killer story, but it seems like there could have been much more done with it rather than just throwing it away. Also, after this the “surprise” about the serial killers youth being bad, and having a cold, heartless mother etc etc was almost an anti-climax.
Overall, a thumbs up, with reservations for people with weak stomachs ( the murder victims are described in graphic detail ).