Peter Matschek, Gold Mine Processing Associate, recommends The Alienist by Caleb Carr.
Note: The term “alienist” comes from the fact that, prior to the twentieth century, people who were mentally ill were considered to be “alienated” from society. Those who studied them were therefore called alienists. It was not a field that received a lot of support at that time.
The Alienist takes place in 1890s New York City in the slums. In some of the seediest establishments, there are children who dress up as women and prostitute themselves. And somebody is killing them.
Since the police at that time were heavily corrupt and couldn’t be trusted, the police commissioner (who was hired to clean up the corruption) put together a team to work outside the system. This team consisted of an investigative reporter who was familiar with the criminal underworld, a woman who was smart, ambitious, and hoping to advance beyond her present secretarial job, and an alienist who was brilliant but beyond arrogant. They had to work in secret locations in the evenings and weekends to avoid getting caught. They faced constant hostility from several sources, not the least being the police (since the police-being unable to locate the killer-felt threatened).
They started out with the alienist’s theory that peoples actions as adults are influenced (or dictated) by their life’s experiences as a child, which was a very controversial view at that time. They tried to get inside the mind of this evil person and answer the question: How could somebody do this to children and why? They brainstormed ideas and as the murders continued, they were able to create a plausible psychological profile of the killer. Then, through good old-fashioned detective work, they were able to pinpoint a likely suspect (after many failed attempts) with the hopes of catching him before he could kill again.
I liked this book since it is a classic detective story which focuses of the team’s investigation of the murders rather than focusing on the murderer himself (or herself). It does not describe the crime scenes, so we are spared the gory details of the murders, thank goodness. It’s also a period piece of 1890s New York, which was pretty interesting as well.