Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Carr: The Alienist

I promised that I'd give Caleb Carr a fair shake and tell you about one of his better books after *The Italian Secretary* got such a poor review. Mr. Carr's sales wouldn't be affected in any statistically important way if every single one of you went out and bought The Alienist (he's a pretty regular player on the bestseller lists), but I'll feel less guilty if I give him some praise.

The Alienist is set in late nineteenth-century New York City. The novel is in first person, told by Archie Moore, the journalist sidekick of the detective and title character, Lazlo Kreizler. Kreizler is a psychologist (the modern term for a profession then called "alienist" because mentally ill patients were seen as "alienated"), called in by Theodore Roosevelt, the Commissioner of Police, to solve a series of murders. Since the killer has been focusing on cross-dressing prostitutes, the police are not motivated to solve the murders of such unsavory people. The use of psychological tools to "profile" serial killers is now tired stuff in murder mysteries, but Carr makes it fresh again by showing us how an investigative team might have gone about it before such methods were commonplace.

The team consists of an interesting ensemble--Moore himself, Kreizler, two brothers surnamed Isaacson, Moore's friend Sarah (a secretary and one of the first female employees in the police department), and some of Kreizler's former patients now turned household staff. The team is well drawn, for the most part, although the brothers (one a forensic genius with cadavers, another expert at crime scene analysis) are annoying at first.

I would also like to say that Carr deftly plants a red herring that, had it turned out to be the solution, would have given the book a ho-hum "shocker" ending worthy of a mediocre slasher film. I spent most of the book afraid I knew who'd done it, and I'm glad to say that Carr didn't take it that way. It would have made the book much less a painstakingly researched detective procedural than a "BESTSELLER! WITH A SHOCKER ENDING THAT WILL LEAVE YOU GUESSING UNTIL THIS END!" sort of book. This was much more subtle. Kreizler is a neat detective, and I found myself with a mental picture of him that was highly cinematic (actually, I kept picturing Ben Kingsley in *Sneakers* for some reason, even though Kingsley's the villian in that film and it's not a period piece).

Carr still struggles with using "being as" instead of because, but it wasn't quite so egregious in this book. I think the editors did a better job (although it slipped by them a few times). I've got the second book in the series, and I'll let you know when I read it.

I don't really have a recipe that speaks topically to either psychology or serial killing. Actually, that's probably good. This is the best recipe for banana bread ever. The graham cracker crumbs are the key.

1 c. flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
2 or 3 mashed bananas
1 c. graham cracker crumbs
1/3 c. shortening
3/4 c. sugar
2 eggs
1/2 c. chopped walnuts.
Combine dry ingredients.  Mix sugar and shortening, then add eggs, dry ingredients,
bananas and nuts. Pour into greased loaf pan. Bake in 350 oven
for 1 hour.