John Schuyler Moore has been called to the scene of a crime by noted alienist and college friend Laszlo Kreizler. Once there he finds New York City police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt, also an old college pal. It is 1896 about 2 in the morning on March 3, and they are looking at the body of a young boy whose eyes have been removed, whose genitals have been cut off and placed in the boy's mouth and whose buttocks have been cut off.
Have I got your attention?
Thus begins a desperate race to understand through the bodies of his victims a serial killer. Not simply to understand but also to catch a serial killer who is preying on the boy whores of turn of the century New York.
Did I get your attention again? Yup. But given literature's penchant for incest and really anything sexually abusive...it's still rather a mindfuck. Come on! We might parade girls around in trampish makeup and call them beauty queens, but boys must be protected from even the slightest hint of faggy incursion.
Yes, I'm being facetious, but you know, I have a point. There's a double standard that makes "boy whores" much more titillating than anything you may see on Toddlers and Tiaras. And which makes incest lit rather old hat.
Let's begin by saying The Alienist is INDEED a page turner. I finished about 500 pages in almost a weekend and found myself aching to get back to the book when I had to stop reading to go eat or more likely to go to work.
But you don't simply go through 500 pages to watch the shock-and-awe of a serial killer (or boy whores, for that matter). The Alienist is just as much if not more about New York of the late 1890s: Washington Square, Paresis Hall, the Bowery, the Tenderloin, the waterfront, the Croton Reservoir, the Five Points. A Broadway filled with carriages. It is the New York of soon-to-be-president Theodore Roosevelt. It is a New York in which J. Piedmont Morgan actually walks the streets. It is the New York in which elegant men and ladies travel by broughams.
This is what Caleb Carr brings to life for us, more than anything else. The plot, though filled with the horrors of murder and tragic lives cut short, keeps you visiting a New York City that continues to exist only as an archived shadow. A New York, darkness aside, you long to keep visiting.