To Catch a Predator

Author: Caleb Carr

It is 1896, New York, a world teaming with opulence and severe oppression. The seedy underbelly of society is thriving: brothels are teaming, criminal organizations and crime lords run rampant, immigrants live in sordid tenements, and everything that seems innocent is underpinned by the money and political influence of the malevolent. Worse yet, a sadistic killer is on the loose, a man who targets young boys working out of brothels and leaves them carved open, mutilated and abused. He has struck before, and he will strike again. But these are forgotten boys; they come from immigrant families and their services are considered depraved and unnatural by the society around them. It doesn’t matter that they are still children, desperate children living in a dangerous world. No one will step in to stop the killing . . . at least, no one will publicly.

Behind the scenes, a rag-tag band works secretly to analyze the crimes and suss out and stop the killer. Famed (or rather infamous) alienist (read psychologist) Dr. Laszlo Kreizler is pushing for a new way to examine the criminal mind. Monsters aren’t always born. Sometimes they are made. Theodore Roosevelt, the newly appointed police commissionaire, is secretly backing Dr. Kreizler, and journalist (and narrator) John Schuyler is along for the ride, as well as Sara Howard, a police secretary who wants to break into male dominated fields. Together the small team starts to grow, adding to their ranks, following the clues back to the history of one very scarred man in a battle against time to stop him from killing again.

The Alienist is a large book that covers some very dark topics. It starts as it means to go on, at the scene of a brutal murder, the body of a child, painted as a woman, left mutilated. It’s a sickening scene and one that sets the premise of the book. The darkness here will not abate, and the scenes of child prostitution, thankfully not graphic, are still dingy enough to be disturbing. Our characters move in this morbid world of brothels and secret rendezvous, eventfully teaming (briefly) with a 12 year old boy prostitute whose clues bring them slightly closer to identifying the malevolent force that is using the cities’ roofs to hunt his prey.

Throughout the investigation, The Alienist is a very slow burn, depressing topics and oppressive, gritty atmospheres moving past the windows of our mind in a tedious milieu. None of our characters, despite their noble aspirations, are especially empathetic. We find out early that our narrator, John, has himself been known to frequent brothels (fortunately not those with children), but considering how obvious it was that the men and women in this profession at this time were being abused, mistreated, and ostracized, it made me dislike the narrator. He was, in my mind, part of the societal problem that made desperate people even more vulnerable and more apt to experience abuse in order to eek out an existence.

Beyond this, however, the emotions here are oddly tame for such gruesome topics. The characters are focused on the clues and their lives and personal motivations are barely touched upon. They are even more unrealistic because of their modern sensibilities, ideas and preferences you would not really be seeing during that time period. Lazlo gets a slight back-story, one that is meant to tie him to the killer and explain his ability to look at both the hunter and his prey with empathy. But it’s not very engaging, and coupled with the snail’s pace of the investigation, it makes the pages drag. It’s odd to say, but for such a floridly disturbing topic, it’s hard to become engaged and to experience any emotions beyond depression and a desire to bleach one’s mind from the images and sadness so casually portrayed.

Finally, after several hundred pages, we start to get an actual portrait of the killer, and from there the action escalates, the characters risk everything and miscommunicate dramatically, and the wished for confrontation with the monster is predictably curtailed. The age old question – why did the monster do it – is just glimpsed but, realistically, never answered. The story could have been more interesting and far more engaging if it had been cut in half and the characters had been given life beyond just the investigation. As it was, this was a tedious experience and a book I was glad to finish and chuck into my Little Free Library.

– Frances Carden

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Frances Carden
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