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Sat, Sep. 7th, 2013, 06:38 pm
Book review and a brief dive into NYC history

Finished Caleb Carr's Dr. Laszlo Kreizler Mystery Series, which at the moment is comprised of two books: The Alienist and The Angel of Darkness. The genre could be defined as a historical psychological murder mystery. Historically it's set in New York at the very end of 19th century: 1896 and 1897 respectively. Dr. Laszlo Kreizler is "an alienist" or what we would now call a shrink, specializing in child psychology but also providing psychological evaluations of criminals for "insanity plea" court cases. He is uniquely qualified to find a killer when few young boy-prostitutes turn up brutally murdered in The Alienist. He is assisted by a rather interesting cast of characters: a journalist; a secretary who dreams of becoming a detective and is one of the first few women to have been hired by NYC police department; two Jewish police detectives, Marcus and Lucius Isaacson; and two former criminals, one of them a 12-year-old boy, who are now in Doctor's employ. They are all assembled and given a task of investigating the murder by the president of the board of New York City Police Commissioners: Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt at the time was trying to rid NYC police department of a wide spread corruption and Doctor's secret investigation was undertaken with president's blessing because it was obvious that it wouldn't get a fair effort from the actual detective force.

What Kreizler ends up doing in the first book is profiling a serial killer, method that was just being developed and tentatively employed in Europe for other high-profile cases (like Jack the Ripper). That, together with some "modern" forensic techniques Isaacsons use (author's vintage point is priceless in identifying the ones that actually work), as well as clever deductions, research and good old-fashioned detective work make up an investigation.

Second book was written in a different voice and author had a hard time in keeping his chosen narrator's language entirely consistent, it would slip into a more sophisticated tone every once in a while. The story started out with a kidnapping of a daughter of a high Spanish diplomatic official on the eve of Spanish-American war and concentrated on the slow unraveling of the kidnapper's gruesome past.

The mysteries themselves were gripping enough, though I am not a big fan of psychobabble and could stand a lot less of it. Some story lines were a bit predictable and character actions repetitive, especially across two books but writing was good enough to hold one's attention with enough suspense.

My favorite part of both books, however, was the historical backdrop of New York City, which was actually just transforming to incorporate the five boroughs. Caleb Carr is a historian and a New Yorker and it shows in the details and descriptions of the streets and neighborhoods, buildings and parks, landmarks and people themselves. You could feel yourself walking or driving along the streets noting existing sites, noticing missing ones. I even opened up a map for reference while reading.

Two mentions I found most interesting. Apparently up until late 1890s, what is now the site of New York Public Library and Bryant Park was taken up by the Croton Distributing Reservoir, which at some point was Manhattan's primary water source. It was an above ground fortress-like structure built in an Egyptian style with a walking promenade along the perimeter of the thick walls. I worked for years in a building on 42nd and 6th, overlooking the park, and never had an inkling of its history. In The Angel of Darkness, one of the characters mentions passing by the construction site of Bell Telephone Laboratories. Wait a minute, thought I, Bell Labs? On West Street? It can't possibly be our building, I know for a fact it's not old enough, and the neighborhood is off, and I would have known if I got to work in Bell Labs building (это почти, как пострелять из револьвера Дзержинского!). There are no other telco buildings on West St that I know of. Well, there isn't now, but in 1898 original Bell Labs opened up on 463 West Street and until the move to NJ in 1966 the 13-building complex saw some of the most amazing research of the first half of 20th century, including parts of Manhattan Project. Now the building is designated as a National Historical Landmark and houses Westbeth Artists Community for low to middle income artists. Nobody at work had any idea of this swath of our history, for all of us Bell Labs were always in Holmdel, NJ. To my, did you know that original Bell Labs were in Manhattan on West Street, one of my colleagues replied, no, that doesn't ring a bell, and then immediately apologized ;) Sic transit gloria mundi. But I am now planning to swing by when I get a chance.