Historical Fiction Annotation - The Alienist by Caleb Carr
It's 1896 in New York City and someone is killing and mutilating boy prostitutes. The police want nothing to do with the murders of the least of city's denizens, but Theodore Roosevelt, the newly appointed police commissioner, is determined to bring the person responsible to justice. So he enlists his friends Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, a well-known (and largely disliked) psychologist, and John Moore, a crime beat reporter, to investigate--unbeknownst to anyone else in the department. Kreizler seeks to do something no one has ever done: create a portrait of the killer using the evidence and inference--then find the man who fits that profile. However, it's not just time and the killer they're racing against, as the city's crime bosses don't want anyone snooping in their business and even the police interfere, fearing the loss of their income through pay offs and illegal dealings. And as Kreizler and Moore draw closer, the stakes just get higher and higher--and may just cost them their lives.
Characteristics of historical fiction:
- Wealth of accurate historical detail relating to setting: Carr was a history writer before he tried his hand at fiction. The book visits New York icons, some in construction or recently constructed, and addresses the implications of recent events, such as Roosevelt's appointment as commissioner and his changes in the police department.
- Raises difficult social or moral issues through the plot: The Alienist not only addresses things like the corruption in the New York police department at the time, but it expresses a lot of sympathy and care for the plight of the children, young boys dressed as girls prostituting themselves, involved in the murders. It also views the events that bring the murderer to the edge with understanding, with Kreizler seeing how what happened to the man as a child affected his entire life--he's never fully vilified because of it.
- Characters may be real, and fit within the times (no anachronisms): Theodore Roosevelt is the largest real character, but others, such as J.P. Morgan, Jacob Riis, and Anthony Comstock, play small parts.
- Big books, with a leisurely pace: The hardcover is 496 pages, and while the book has a kind of thriller tone, it reads slowly, with lots of details. (I'm not a slow reader and it took me over a week!)
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