First Read of 2018: Caleb Carr’s The Alienist (Writer’s Review)

This review is written from the perspective of a writer rather than a reader. For a reader’s review, check out my Goodreads.


I selected The Alienist as my first read because I heard it was being developed as a TV series on TNT and the headliners are actors I love: Luke Evans, Daniel Bruehl, and Dakota Fanning). I was in the grocery store on Sunday morning to buy prosecco for New Year’s Eve, but had to kill thirty minutes before they could sell it to me. I had the good fortune of finding it in the book section and started it right then.

What should have taken a month, at no fault of the book itself, took a month and a half. Part of this is due to not prioritizing my reading time, and part of it is due to the fact I was reading a paperback. If I were reading on my Kindle Paperwhite, I would have been able to read in bed.

Lesson learned.

Be advised that nothing I note would have prevented me from continuing this book. I enjoyed the book and I bought the second one (for my Kindle Paperwhite).

The Good

The Alienist is a serial killer thriller/police procedural written in the style of Arthur Conan Doyle in that the narrator is the side-kick. He captured the voice and tone very well, and I probably wouldn’t have pinned Carr as a modern writer unless I had that context beforehand, as opposed to the book being written in the 1919 about an investigation in 1896. I loved the infusion of local flavor (both NY and DC) and contemporary events, especially the descriptions of Delmonico’s.

The serial killer hit almost all of my favorite tropes: a rigid MO, butchering, cat-and-mouse with the investigative team, contacting a victim’s family, a riveting backstory, and not applying his MO to incidental murders.

Almost all of the characters were well fleshed-out and had their own memorable moments. I especially love when Dr. Kreizler, who always seems a bit straight, would throw out a line or barb that shows he is much more than he seems.

Perhaps my favorite feature of this novel–even more than the serial killer–was that the plot features the genesis of psychological profiling and forensics being used to catch a killer. They also allude to how the methods were originally developed and how others attempted to apply them in, say, the Ripper Murders. He even included a dud method, which was a sound failure. I didn’t know this beforehand, so when I realized it, I was thrilled.

The Bad

The narrator felt like the only character who wasn’t thoroughly fleshed-out (this has been resolved in the TV show). Mentions of his family and ex-fiance felt forced or tacked on in specific places, as opposed to naturally-occurring throughout the narrative. This didn’t really detract from the novel, but resolving it would have led to a much better read. I also never understood why he was involved in the case, although they kept alluding to it being of some importance. Perhaps I somehow missed it.

The investigators cling to the idea that the killer wishes to be stopped. Although this trope was popular in the 80’s and 90’s (The Alienist was written in 1994), it has since been debunked (source: Dr. Scott Bonn in Psychology Today), so every time they alluded to it, I kind of rolled my eyes. Playing cat-and-mouse with investigators isn’t a cry for help–it’s a power play.

My most common complaint is the author’s rampant use of dialogue tags, sometimes randomly placed (as interjections), and sometimes odd. For example, he uses “noised” quite often for a grunt or growl (I assume). It reinforced the idea that dialogue tags should only be used when necessary, and only the most basic ones (said, shouted, etc).

Adding to that, the author sometimes uses odd word choices that felt unnatural even for Victorian-era authors, as well as awkward instances of the passive when the sentence easily could have been active. He sometimes (rarely) used long or meandering sentence structures that were not-quite-confusing to me, but would probably be confusing to others.

The Ugly

I appreciated the diverse cast of characters, but sometimes descriptions of their features (specifically the Isaacsons and Cyrus) smacked as racist or at the very least white gaze-y.

There were two times I literally groaned as I read, both involving the narrator falling unconscious. Authors often use this as a method of avoidance (I should know!), and they both felt rather forced. The first time I actually put the book aside for a few days, and it took me a bit to get back into it–but I’m glad I stuck with it.

There was one instance where a character close to the killer knew the investigators’ names without them introducing themselves. For the last quarter of the novel, I believed this was some kind of foreshadowing, but it turned out to be just the author omitting that they had introduced themselves or not following-through with whatever it would have foreshadowed.


3.7/5 stars.

I enjoyed The Alienist. All of my criticisms can be boiled down to it being Carr’s second work of fiction–his first in fourteen or so years–and his usual wheelhouse is nonfiction. None of them really killed the book for me, just irked me as a writer and serial killer fan. I’m excited about reading the second book and his other works, to see how he’s grown as he writes more fiction.


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