NY Public Library Discussion of The Alienist, Part III

View Part One, Part Two, and Part Three of the NY Public Library Discussion of The Alienist.

Over the past fortnight, I have provided my responses to the NY Public Library Reader’s Den discussion points for The Alienist’s Part I: Perception and Part II: Association. This week’s Part III: Will discussion points were perhaps the trickiest of all, especially for me as a non-New Yorker, but I’ll still give them a shot.

Regarding Kreizler’s final insight on the killer, what do you, dear readers, feel about this?

You can read the final insight the question refers to here. My mind is immediately drawn to what is probably my favourite passage in the entire novel, found all the way back in Chapter One:

The country, [Kreizler] declared tonight, really hasn’t changed much since 1896 … We’re all still running, according to Kreizler — in our private moments we Americans are running just as fast and fearfully as we were then, running away from the darkness we know to lie behind so many apparently tranquil household doors, away from the nightmares that continue to be injected into children’s skulls by people whom Nature tells them they should love and trust, running ever faster and in ever greater numbers toward those potions, powders, priests, and philosophies that promise to obliterate such fears and nightmares, and ask in return only slavish devotion.

In my view, The Alienist and The Angel of Darkness are as much a commentary on today’s society as they are on society of the 1890s, so it should come as no surprise to any regular visitor of 17th Street that I wholeheartedly agree with the above passage and final insight regarding the killer, and believe they are just as applicable now as they were for the time period in which the books are set. Although we’ve come a long way in many respects, in others we’re as blind as we’ve ever been — perhaps worse, in some ways, with the escapism certain technologies have provided along with the band-aid solutions certain drugs have provided. But that’s a topic for another day.

What about the contrasts in the lives of New York’s lower class denizens and those of Kreizler’s team members?

Bandit's Roost (1888) by Jacob RiisThe beauty of the team’s composition in my view is that Mr. Carr appears to have made a point of including characters like Stevie Taggert who, prior to being taken under the protection of the doctor, very much fell into the “lower class denizen” bracket. I think that’s what I appreciate so much about The Angel of Darkness as well. Not only does the sequel provide us with a contrasting murderer, a contrasting developmental context for the murderer, and a contrast between city and country that we didn’t get (to the same degree) in The Alienist; it also provides us with a contrasting narrator in Stevie Taggert. As much as The Angel of Darkness captures the same city as The Alienist, we see many aspects of New York in a totally different light thanks to Stevie’s vastly different life experiences brought about by his early life on the street.

Does this contrast still resonate, especially in light of the recent mayoral campaign?

As for whether the class contrast still resonates, I’ll leave that one up to New Yorkers to answer. The only thing I will say, being from overseas, is that a comment on the recent New York Times Big City Book Club chat about Jacob Riis’ How The Other Half Lives struck me: “The HALF is now the ONE PERCENT. Looks like we need to review our arithmetic…” If that really is the case, I wonder how it might influence a third Alienist book, assuming Mr. Carr does decide to write one. Will it affect the parallels New Yorkers could draw from the book? Will it affect how Mr. Carr would choose to write the book? Mr. Carr certainly hasn’t been shy in expressing his opinions on the new class divides (or lack thereof) in the city in recent months.

How about the political and law enforcement structures of 19th century New York? They seem more concerned with keeping the immigrant population in check than with actually solving the crime and conditions that makes it so restive.

Corruption — it’s a universal theme that pervades the novel. This was an era when Tammany ruled New York; when police captains were rewarded with transfers to the most lucrative graft precincts in the city, thereby ensuring the protection of brothel and dive owners provided they could continue making the required payoffs; when agents for reformers were found guilty of blackmailing the same individuals they were supposedly trying to clean up; when the largest slum landlord in New York was the Episcopal Church; and when the Catholic Church relied on the donations of thousands of immigrants barely surviving in the crowded tenements of New York. Where money and power is concerned, I think the Paul Kelly of the novel said it best: “It’s a sucker bet, a crooked game, whatever you want to call it, and there’s a part of me that just wouldn’t mind seeing it go the other way for a little while.” Although, obviously, I don’t quite agree with Kelly’s methods!

Do you think Carr did well in making the doctor more relatable and sympathetic as a person? What about the others? We never really delve further into the characters of the Isaacson brothers … Perhaps in Carr’s sequel?

I believe that I’ve adequately explained my view on Kreizler’s portrayal in my responses for Part II. I absolutely agree that further background for the Isaacson brothers would be fascinating, though. Other than the tidbit we were told about the brothers being drawn to detective work after reading Wilkie Collins as boys, we know very little of their individual or shared motivations and background. My fingers are crossed that such an explanation will be provided to us one day in a third book.

Final brainteaser: What location is this and where does it figure into the book?

The image the brainteaser refers to in the blog post a little unclear, but I’ll suggest the Croton Reservoir. And for anyone who doesn’t know where that particular structure figures into the book… well, you’ll just have to keep reading!

Thanks to the NY Public Library Reader’s Den for the interesting discussion points this month! It’s been fun.

What do you think? Leave a comment!

NY Public Library Discussion of The Alienist, Part II

View Part One, Part Two, and Part Three of the NY Public Library Discussion of The Alienist.

Last week I provided my responses to the NY Public Library Reader’s Den discussion points for The Alienist’s Part I: Perception. This week’s Part II: Association discussion points required a bit more thinking! I’m looking forward to seeing what the discussion points are for Part III: Will.

Do you think [John is] naive or simply too emotionally involved in the case and with the team for his own good? Does he provide a sufficient counterpoint to the somewhat aloof Kreizler?

These discussion points follow from a brief character analysis in the Part II Reader’s Den blog which states, in part, that, “Moore is, in many ways, the opposite of his friend, Kreizler; passionate and headstrong where Laszlo is intellectual and clinical,” and, “At times [John] can seem naive but this is just a byproduct of how deeply he sees into others.” Unfortunately, I’m afraid that I’m going to have to start my response by saying that while I agree John and Kreizler are, to a degree, different sides of the same coin (more on that below), I disagree with the aforementioned interpretation of their characters, and therefore with the premise for these discussion points. Sorry, Reader’s Den!

As one might be able to gather from the character analyses I’ve included on this site, “passionate” and “headstrong” are adjectives I would be more inclined to use in describing Kreizler than John. This impression began, for me, as early as John’s first meeting with Kreizler at Bellevue Hospital in which he describes his friend as appearing reminiscent of a “hungry, restless hawk determined to wring satisfaction from the worrisome world around him,” and continues throughout the novel, with Kreizler exhausting himself by working tirelessly on the case, and, as we discover in Part II, falling victim to the “psychologist’s fallacy” (see Chapter 24). However, it was not John who first became aware that something deeper than professional interest was driving Kreizler’s tireless work during the investigation. It was the insightful Sara Howard who, despite having known Kreizler for only a fraction of the time his life-long friend John had known him, was able to see what John could not: that Kreizler’s motivation in the investigation was “more than just his reputation, and more than just scientific curiosity. It’s something old and deep.” As she patiently explains to the confused John, “He’s a very deep man, your friend Dr. Kreizler.”

John MooreThe fact that Sara saw in Kreizler what John could not that leads me to the second reason I disagree with the aforementioned Reader’s Den interpretation of the characters. Although I like John’s character a great deal — he is charming, fun, loyal, kind, and charismatic — I do not see him as “deep” per se. That is not to say that I believe he lacks depth of character; as mentioned in his character analysis, I believe he is just as complex as any of the other characters in the novel. Instead, I see John as being the type of character who is not prone to much self-analysis, nor to the analysis of others. Rather than trying to understand himself, his actions, or even those around him on a deeper level, John’s behaviour — heavy drinking, gambling, and spending meaningless nights with a string of women — hint at someone who would prefer not to confront his emotions and his past, rather than someone who is actively interested in engaging in self-examination.

As an aside, I actually find it somewhat ironic that it is John who first describes Kreizler as being emotionally distant, when I see John as being just as emotionally distant as Kreizler, albeit in a different way. It is in this respect that I see John and Kreizler as being two different sides of the same coin. Where John avoids his emotions, Kreizler suppresses his and engages in long periods of self-reflection in order to be sure that he is acting appropriately on any subject that requires emotional investment (as we’re about to discover regarding a certain woman he is interested in during Part III). Consequently, his falling victim to the “psychologist’s fallacy” may have been due to the spontaneous nature of the investigation not providing him with ample time to consider his motivations, rather than any lack of self-awareness.

So, all of that said, do I believe that John is too emotionally involved in the case for his own good? John unquestionably becomes emotionally involved in the case, as do most of the investigators, but I would argue this is primarily a result of his interactions with Joseph, the young boy he befriends while making enquiries in the case. When asked by Marcus Isaacson about the ease with which he engaged in conversation with Joseph, he avoids answering the question but privately comments in his narrative, “I had no desire to reveal how much young Joseph’s eyes and smile had reminded me of my own dead brother’s at the same age.” Thus, there is certainly more to John than meets the eye, but it appears to me that it is John’s lack of emotional self-awareness rather than an ability to “see [deeply] into others” that makes the most critical impact upon his actions during the investigation. And, yes, I think the particular combination on the team of emotional perceptiveness (on Kreizler and Sara’s part) and emotional naiveté (on John’s part) do provide good counterweights during the investigation.

What do you think motivates this relatively well-off New York Times reporter? And what motivates Kreizler?

In answering the previous discussion points, I believe I’ve already provided my response regarding Kreizler’s motivation. Regarding John’s motivation, I’ll answer with a direct quote from the novel.

The Alienist, Chapter 6:

If it seems odd that I offered no further protest, I can only say this: Kreizler’s explanation that his present course of action had been inspired by a document I had sent him years ago, coming as it did on the heels of our shared reminiscences about Harvard and Theodore’s mounting enthusiasm for this plan, had suddenly made it plain to me that what was happening in that office was only partly a result of Giorgio Santorelli’s death. Its full range of causes seemed to stretch much farther back, to our childhoods and subsequent lives, both individual and shared. Rarely have I felt so strongly the truth of Kreizler’s belief that the answers one gives to life’s crucial questions are never truly spontaneous; they are the embodiment of years of contextual experience, of the building of patterns in each of our lives that eventually grow to dominate our behaviour. Was Theodore — whose credo of active response to all challenges had guided him through physical sickness in youth and political and personal trials in adulthood — truly free to refuse Kreizler’s offer? And if he accepted it, was I then free to say no to these two friends, with whom I had lived through many escapades and who were now telling me that my extracurricular activities and knowledge — so often dismissed as useless by almost everyone I knew — would prove vital in catching a brutal killer?

As for John’s motivation in continuing with the case when things get tough, I think we can put it down to two elements. First, he mentions early in the novel that the “voice whispering in the back of [his] head: ‘Hurry up or a child will die!'” was one strongly motivating factor. Second, I feel that the passion of the other team members — particularly Kreizler and Sara — pulled John through some of the more difficult phases of the investigation.

But, as always, this is only my interpretation! If you would like to present an alternative viewpoint, you’re more than welcome to do so in the comments below.


NY Public Library Discussion of The Alienist, Part I

View Part One, Part Two, and Part Three of the NY Public Library Discussion of The Alienist.

Earlier this week, the NY Public Library Reader’s Den posted their discussion points of The Alienist’s Part I: Perception. As we follow along over the next two and a half weeks, I thought it I’d put up my responses to the discussion points here on the 17th Street blog. What do you think of my answers? Do you agree or disagree? Next week’s discussion points will relate to Part II: Association.

Do you believe the author succeeded in his aim of historical authenticity?

flatiron-buildingNo surprises here: absolutely. For several years now I have made a point of reading any and all historical crime fiction set in nineteenth century New York to find another book or author that I can unreservedly recommend to Alienist fans, but nine times out of ten I feel that they disappoint for precisely this reason. Personally, I think the key to historical authenticity lies in subtlety. Would a nineteenth century narrator really have explained or put emphasis on something that was simply part of daily life for them?

Some critics have pointed out that Caleb Carr “tells” more than he “shows” at times during the Alienist books, but I would argue that he gets away with this by having his narrators ‘write’ their stories in retrospective for an intended audience in the early twentieth century. For example, buildings that had already been demolished or were simply part of the landscape by the late-1910s rather than being the new and exciting developments they had been in the 1890s could still be described in detail for such an audience. Importantly, Mr. Carr doesn’t “tell” for details that would still have been well-known for an early twentieth century audience, and this — to me — makes all the difference for creating a historically authentic piece.

As far as the books being historically accurate are concerned, there can be no question that this is the case. The books are impeccably researched. Little details that other authors occasionally get wrong can ruin the reading experience for someone as picky as me, but no matter how deep I go in checking the historical detail in these books, they’re always accurate. It’s always a relief when I re-read one of the books to know that I won’t be irritated by a reference to a piece of clothing or a building or even a psychological theory that is out of place for the time period the books are set in. The only other literature I can always be sure of finding that level of accuracy in are classics written during the nineteenth century, or in equally impeccably researched non-fiction works. Mr. Carr is a historian first and foremost, and it shows.

Do you think Kreizler’s “collecting” of people for his household is motivated by compassion? Or something more unsavory, like a P.T. Barnum of the psychological world?

The idea of Dr. Kreizler being “a P.T. Barnum of the psychological world” gave me a chuckle. No, I don’t see anything unsavory in how Cyrus, Stevie, and Mary came to be part of his household. Throughout both Alienist books, we are provided with perfectly reasonable explanations for how these characters ended up under the Doctor’s protection. In fact, during The Angel of Darkness we see that Dr. Kreizler has hired a Russian housekeeper who has no connection to his professional work, making it fairly clear that he doesn’t aim to compose his household of former patients.

Do the characters seem, as one reviewer put it, anachronistic?

I don’t see the characters as anachronistic either. Certainly, it’s clear that Mr. Carr took the opportunity to fill the investigative team with an unusually eclectic group to show as many different aspects of the New York experience during the late nineteenth century as possible, but it wasn’t an impossible collection of characters for the time period: Theodore Roosevelt did hire the first female police secretary, there were Jewish police officers at the time, and Dr. Kreizler would have had close contact with youths like Stevie and individuals like Cyrus and Mary through his work.