The Alienist, by Caleb Carr

As a crime reporter for the New York Times, John Moore has seen the darkest side of humanity–or so he thought until one night in March 1896, when a frenzied pounding at his door summoned him to a murder scene worse than anything he could imagine: a boy, a child prostitute, bound and horribly mutilated atop the Williamsburg Bridge. The worst part? This is the third such body so far this year.

The police commissioner is appalled. So much so that he decides to appoint a handpicked group to investigate the murders; a group separate from the notoriously corrupt Division of Detectives–a group that actually cares about the deaths of ignored, desperate children working a job most of society refuses to acknowledge could ever exist.

So John, a pair of Jewish brothers, and the NYPD’s first female secretary team up under the leadership of one of New York’s most controversial figures: Dr. Laszlo Kreizler.

Kreizler is an alienist–what we would nowadays call a psychiatrist (back then people with mental illnesses were considered “alienated” from themselves, and so the doctors who treated them were known as alienists.). A strong advocate of nurture over nature, Kreizler believes the group can come to understand the motivations of the killer by examining the dead and working backwards to establish patterns, and then using those patterns to find the killer’s identity.

John believes they stand a good chance of solving the murders, but powerful people are standing in their way–witnesses are bribed, beaten, threatened into silence. But who is silencing the witnesses? And why? The deeper the team digs, the stronger the pushback becomes, until they themselves are at risk.

I first read this book about twelve years ago, when a friend loaned it to me, telling me I’d love it. He was right. A dark, sometimes graphic, engrossing mystery, it’s got so much historical detail you feel like you’re actually there. Real-life people from history populate the pages of the book; rather than seeming out-of-place or overshadowing the fictional characters, they instead breathe even more life into the setting. Carr does a wonderful job painting a portrait of desperation standing alongside unimaginable wealth; of an hypocritical society determined to ignore its own darker side.

Can Kreizler and Co. find the murderer before another child dies? Before the city’s poor begin to riot? Before one of their own becomes the next victim? The Alienist is a thrilling chase through Gilded Age Manhattan that will leave you breathless.

Favorite Line:

If I’m the danger then I shall remove myself. Let this man keep killing. It’s what they want…without such creatures they’ve no scapegoats for their own wretched brutality!

Don’t read if: you recoil at Teddy Roosevelt, reformed criminal children named Stevie, long meals at Delmonico’s, or nervous grandmothers.