Monday, May 14, 2007

The Alienist

The Alienist

Caleb Carr

Date: 15 March, 1994   —   Book

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This is the sort of novel that proves to me just how silly genres are. In any sensible world, books such as this would be shelved with mysteries, much like Mark Helprin's book A Winter's Tale and Gabriel Garcia Marquez novels would be shelved with fantasy.

But, mindful that shelving a book in the genre categories is consigning it to being "just a detective novel" or "just about elves and dwarves", publishers take stellar examples of those very genres and stick them in Literature.

Which, of course, guarantees that the genres will never be "quite as good as modern fiction." It's enough to drive anyone mad.

The Alienist might be described as "CSI: 1896." It is the path of an investigation into a murderer, a man who kills child prostitutes. The investigation is hampered by the fact that the old guard of the police (only recently beginning to be reformulated after massive corruption) shrugs the murders off as something that the children deserved (the idea that children were more easily coerced into bad choices had not yet been accepted), that "alienists" (psychologists) were seen as attacking the moral fiber of the country, and that the whole concept of serial killers— and that there might be a methodology behind their killings— was barely beginning to form. The investigation into the mind of a killer is therefore unofficial, but the bosses of the underworld are still unhappy, and are apt to make their feelings known through pain...

This is a meticulously researched novel, and is a fascinating psychological study. The alienist of the title seems, perhaps, a bit too far on the side of root causes as the reason behind crime for modern tastes, but as his main aim is to treat patients, and as he has to fight against the then prevailing view that free will is total and absolute and that experiences do not, apparently shape us at all, it is quite understandable.

And, once again, the novel is very well written. Consider it a mystery or a thriller, and think kindly of genres in the future.

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