Saturday, March 8, 2014

50 Book Challenge 2014 - February Books

Well, gosh. After a sparkling beginning in January, February fell in a bit of a heap. In my defence: WEATHER. For about half of February, I had no energy for anything beyond staring vacantly at a television screen. So I only ended up reading two books this month. I’m back into reading now after that heat-related slump, so hopefully my list will be more impressive at the end of March. 

I read this a few years ago but because I have the memory of a goldfish I can read crime novels every couple of years and not remember the story. I wish I'd remembered this one though, because it was crap. This is probably her worst book - the obvious suspect at the beginning who seems way too obvious turns out to be the killer for a ridiculously convoluted reason that doesn't even really make sense. Spoiler alert: don't bother. 

This book is about 20 years old and crops up in ‘100 Best Blah Blah Books’ type lists all the time, but I never had any interest in it before, as the little I knew about it (old timey detective novel) didn’t appeal to me. Then a few weeks back I was reading an article about Lucien Carr (member of the Beat Generation and BFF of Jack Kerouac), in which it was mentioned that Caleb Carr is his son. I had a mild obsession with the Beat Generation as a teenager – I devoured biographies about all of them, and attempted (and failed – lord, a lot of it is garbage) to read their actual work, so anything related to this group of fascinating weirdos piques my interest. Hence my sudden decision to read The Alienist, a book which has nothing at all to do with the Beat Generation. But that’s just how my brain works.

The story is one of early forensics – Teddy Roosevelt, then the Police Commissioner of New York, asks two of his old college friends to discreetly investigate the murder of a child prostitute in 1896. The two men – a brilliant psychiatrist looked on with suspicion by the public for his innovative ideas, and the police reporter who is telling the story – realise very quickly that the murder is in fact one of a series, and off on the trail of a serial killer they go. The book is incredibly detailed about the methods of investigation they use – there are pages and pages outlining the brainstorming sessions the two have with the crew they have assembled to help catch their killer, along with long explanations of what were then virtually unknown forensic methods like fingerprinting and criminal profiling. In lesser hands it could have been a really boring book, but I found it fascinating – and not only am I not generally fascinated by anything to do with serial killers, but I side eye people who proudly state that they are (that’s a rant for another day). I think the distance of time helps – an olde worlde (fictional) crime – even one as shocking as this – is much more palatable to read about than a more recent one. But I also found the painstaking detail of how forensics came to be used in the solving of crimes back in ye olden days and how it was looked on with suspicion very interesting. Caleb Carr is a historian, and it shows – the man has obviously done his research.

The ending fell down a bit for me – I found it quite flat and in the vein of 90% of crime novels in that it all seemed to be tied up in a slightly ridiculous, slightly too quick, slightly unbelievable way. However, if I’ve enjoyed the majority of a novel, I can generally forgive a bit of a rubbish ending, especially when it comes to a mystery solved.

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