Perhaps the best book I have read recently is The Alienist by Caleb Carr. It was published in 1994 and was a great success of its time. The reason I had avoided it all this while was a review which I had read, which calls its tone 'scholarly'. Wasn't what I was really looking for, so it was eventually serendipity which made me buy the book. The review was wrong, the tone is serious but the pace fast and even, the characters are interesting, and the events truly exciting — but what's more, you know that you are reading an important piece of detective history (albeit fictional) when you read it. This is a masterpiece.
The US of 1896 was simultaneously very different and rather similar to the country today. The upper crust of the society live a life of extreme opulence, while the poor, the immigrants and the oppressed live in absolute squalor. This was the US of horse-drawn coaches and of opera houses, and it pre-dates Women's Rights, and Martin Luther King Jr. Women and people of color had little rights of their own.
It does read like a piece of non-fiction, and is indeed inhabited by a lot of real-life characters, especially the looming presence of Theodore Roosevelt, then the head of the police department of New York, and later to be one of the greatest presidents the country has had.
John Moore is a crime reporter for the New York Times, and he used to be a mutual friend at college with both Roosevelt and Dr Laszlo Kreizler, the famous psychologist (or Alienist as the professionals of those age were called). There have been a series of murders on the Lower East Side of New York City. Pre-teens and early teenagers, all from the poorest segment of New York society, immigrant or black, have been murdered and their bodies ravaged in an identical manner — perhaps the work of a serial killer. The police is baffled — late 19th century police was not trained to investigate serial killers.
Moore and Kreizler are recruited by Roosevelt to head a team to investigate the crimes. They will not be working with the police, but all by themselves with a team they can hire. Genteel New York society would rather the crimes in the underbelly remain there, however gruesome they may be. Sara Howard, a spiky, brilliant trainee and Moore's old acquaintance, is hired as are the methodical but unconventional brothers Isaacson. We have a team.
And we have a real chase in what follows. A real story. And it's not just the story of a detection, but indeed the art of detection itself. It is a commentary on society of the times, and is a deep observation of what makes a murderer. It's not for the faint of heart. It's a work of finesse.
(The writer is a business development executive in Hyderabad)