Friday, June 10, 2011

The Alienist - Caleb Carr

First line: "Theodore is in the ground."

In 1896 New York City a serial killer is on the loose killing boy prostitutes. The corrupt police department has found ways to write off these killings, especially since these are boys no one cares about. But police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt is determined to stop the killings and bring the murderer to justice. He ventures outside the department, enlisting the help of a psychologist - also known then as an 'alienist' - Dr. Kreizler and a journalist, John Moore. Roosevelt charges them with putting together a psychological profile in an effort to find and stop the psychopath murdering the young boys.

One of the great joys of reading for me is discovering great works for the first time. THE ALIENIST was first published in 1994, so many of you will have already read this classic psychological thriller.

Carr does an exquisite job of balancing character and plot, neither outshines the other. Carr's eccentric cast of characters ranges from a mute housekeeper to a reformed felon to a grandmother who's convinced an imprisoned murderer on death row, whom she's never met, is going to come to escape and kill her. The reader sees all of these characters through the eyes of John Moore as the novel's narrator. John is able to empathize with those around him, making him an empathetic character as well. And when John faces a life-altering event, readers can't help but be affected by it as well.

I was especially fond of Carr's depiction of his female characters. They battle the barriers of their era, their positions, etc. And each still maintains her own person. Carr isn't unrealistic about the limits women had at this time; he illustrates those limits well. He also illustrates how women were fighting those limits each and every day.

Balanced perfectly with his robust characters was a suspenseful plot. The interplay of crime, politics, social status and science make for layers of development and intrigue. Part of that intrigue is built through Carr's use of his setting, New York City. The building rooftops, the shadier neighborhoods, even the restaurants and opera work to create the world where corruption, power, and position all had long-range effects.

Carr meticulously pieced this historical suspense novel together, much the way his infamous Dr. Kreizler pieced together the profile of a serial murderer. It's a great treat to experience the final result.

It is also a treat to experience a fine book read by an incredible narrator. George Guidall narrates the Recorded Books unabridged version of THE ALIENIST and I loved his narration as much in this book as I've loved his work with Craig Johnson's Walt Longmire series.

There have been quite a few occasions where I really enjoyed a narrator in one book but when I picked up another audiobook with the same narrator, it was a disappointment because I could only envision that narrator in the first book, the first role. With George Guidall, you can pick up a new audiobook and have a whole new listening experience. I did not see or hear Walt Longmire once through the duration of THE ALIENIST and I feel that's one of the strongest indicators of a great narrator.

Tied directly to that idea is the sense that you truly understand the characters of THE ALIENIST. It isn't just a man reading the words from the book. Instead it is a performer understanding the roles he's acting. That brings the characters to life in an audiobook.

Guidall's tone and pacing work with Carr's building suspense, and his understanding and appreciation of the setting allow for it to be a backdrop but at the same time a huge influence on the characters and the plot. Guidall always strikes me as the man behind the curtain. He knows all the controls to manipulate so that your imagination comes to life, but he as a narrator never gets in the way of the story. And THAT is a great audiobook experience.

THE ALIENIST is available from Recorded Books on audio (ISBN: 978-1-4025-8903-4). However, the version available through Audible downloads is the abridged version from Simon and Schuster. Your library may be a great place to look for Guidall's unabridged recording!

5 comments:

jaime June 10, 2011 at 2:34 PM  

I read this years ago, probably when it was fresh in paperback, and loved it. I credit it as one of the books that turned me on to historical fiction. The follow-up, The Angel of Darkness, is also good.

Beth F June 11, 2011 at 7:20 AM  

Mr. BFR read this one a few years ago and really loved it. I haven't given it a try, but may be I will.

fan June 11, 2011 at 12:08 PM  

In spite of being a BIG fan of George Guidall, I have never heard this book, being a bit afraid of Caleb Carr. After reading your review, I will give it a listen. Thank you!

salvinder June 13, 2011 at 2:49 AM  

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Denise June 14, 2011 at 1:20 PM  

I also loved this book when it came out, especially the very specific historical details that showed good research!

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