It’s 1896 and a serial killer is at work in New York City, targeting immigrant children working as rent boys. The Police Commissioner (no less a personage than Theodore Roosevelt) is determined to solve the case, so despite his scepticism calls in his old college friend Dr. Laszlo Kreizler. Kreizler is a psychiatrist (in period parlance, an ‘alienist’) and turns profiler in the attempt to solve the case. He assembles a team comprising narrator and crime reporter John Schuyler Moore; detective sergeants Marcus and Lucius Isaacson, enamoured of the latest in forensic science and cheerfully enthusiastic about even the goriest parts of the job; and Sara Howard, Roosevelt’s secretary, who is determined to become the department’s first policewoman. With nothing to go on save the crimes themselves, they set off in search of a killer whom Kreizler swears is sane, but who is none the less dangerous for that. But that might not be all that they’re up against, for corruption is rife and not everyone wants the case solved....
You know a book is good when reading it on the train causes you to almost miss your station. To prevent any further mishaps, I heroically forced myself to read the last 330-odd pages in one day :-). I was somewhat dazed on emerging from such a large volume of long sentences, but it was well worth it. The slightly antiquated style, combined with the historical and geographical detail, created a real period feel. I haven’t read much about American history, and finished the book feeling that I had really learned something about the seedier side of late-nineteenth-century NYC.
Setting aside, this is a riveting mystery. Finding a serial killer is hard enough at the best of times; but when you have to pretty much invent the art of profiling as you go, it’s even more of a challenge. Fortunately the characters are up to it, as well as being entertaining. As a mystery aficionado, it was interesting to see what passed for forensic science in 1896, and the Isaacsons’ enthusiasm was infectious (and how could a bookworm not love characters who chose their profession after reading Wilkie Collins?). Moore as narrator brought a dry humour to the tale, and with his unabashed fondness for booze, women and gambling was instantly likeable. I found Kreizler to be the most enigmatic character, and Sara to be my favourite. She’s the nineteenth-century version of the modern career woman, absolutely set on her goal and not about to let anything - even a husband - get in the way. (The one time she did receive a drunken proposal of marriage, she dumped the sot in question into the Hudson River.) Sara goes around town better armed than the men and in one hilarious scene, reduces the entire team to silence by giving them a sound verbal lashing for treating her like a delicate lady.
Between the delightful characters, the twisting plot, and the have-to-read-on chapter endings, this book had me happily absorbed for hours.