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Chris Blocker

Literary snobbery and other thoughts by Chris Blocker

Review: The Alienist

The Alienist - Caleb Carr

Detective stories are not, have never been, and never will be “my thing;” however, I don't want to grow stagnant as a reader, guilty of not trying to branch out from time to time. The Alienist came with high marks from many friends, so I thought it might be worth venturing into this uncomfortable territory. As my opinions on mysteries are probably not worth paying much attention to, I'm just going to quickly highlight what I liked and what I didn't.

What I liked:
1) Caleb Carr clearly put ample research into the period and the setting. The details are an impressive collection.
2) Carr introduces some wonderful characters who fall into some stereotypes, defy others, but never fail to be interesting.
3) The introduction of historical figures I was unfamiliar with (e.g., Jesse Pomeroy), forcing me to conduct some good old-fashioned research (i.e., Google).
4) When the plot moves, it's very fast paced.
5) It's more psychological and cerebral than I expected.

What I didn't like:
1) Well researched—yes, but painfully so. The story is bogged down by the inclusion of so many details.
2) Carr ignores the best characters for the majority of the novel. Though they're major players, the bulk of the second half of this novel focuses on Moore and Kreizler—fine characters, but lacking magic.
3) The shoehorning of historical figures (e.g.,Theodore Roosevelt) that I could've done without.
4) It's far too long. When the pacing slows, it really slows.
5) It's still a plot-based mystery and well... as we've established, that's “not my thing.”

At its best, The Alienist exceeded my expectations—and I must give it credit for that—but too often it was mediocre at best, largely the result of too much detail, too many pages, and not enough of knowing when to quit.