Alienist, The

Caleb Carr
The year is 1896, the place, New York City. On a cold March night New York Times reporter John Schuyler Moore is summoned to the East River by his friend and former Harvard classmate Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, a psychologist, or "alienist." On the unfinished Williamsburg Bridge, they view the horribly mutilated body of an adolescent boy, a prostitute from one of Manhattan's infamous brothels.The newly appointed police commissioner, Theodore Roosevelt, in a highly unorthodox move, enlists the two men in the murder investigation, counting on the reserved Kreizler's intellect and Moore's knowledge of New York's vast criminal underworld. They are joined by Sara Howard, a brave and determined woman who works as a secretary in the police department. Laboring in secret (for alienists, and the emerging discipline of psychology, are viewed by the public with skepticism at best), the unlikely team embarks on what is a revolutionary effort in criminology-- amassing a psychological profile of the man they're looking for based on the details of his crimes. Their dangerous quest takes them into the tortured past and twisted mind of a murderer who has killed before. and will kill again before the hunt is over.Fast-paced and gripping, infused with a historian's exactitude, The Alienist conjures up the Gilded Age and its untarnished underside: verminous tenements and opulent mansions, corrupt cops and flamboyant gangsters, shining opera houses and seamy gin mills. Here is a New York during an age when questioning society's belief that all killers are born, not made, could have unexpected and mortal consequences.

Reviews

Reviewed: 2020-07-22
UsedAcceptable
Reviewed: 2020-04-12

Caleb Carr is, among other things, a historian and biographer capable of writing a monograph that reads like an adventure story. And so it’s no surprise that his latest book, “The Alienist,” is a novel that makes good use of history in telling the tale of a 19th-Century serial killer.

“The Alienist” is set in New York in 1896, when the raw and roiling metropolis is panicked by a murderer who preys on “boy-whores,” luring his victims out of the brothels and leaving behind their cruelly dismembered bodies.

Beneath its rich historical trappings, however, Carr’s novel is a breathless and sometimes brutal detective story that carries us through mean streets and glittering mansions in pursuit of a bloodthirsty sex fiend.

“All the while, a voice was whispering in the back of my head,” observes John Schuyler Moore, the crime reporter who serves as the narrator, “ ‘Hurry up or a child will die!’ ”

 

An alienist, according to 19th-Century usage, is what we would now call a psychiatrist or psychologist--and the alienist in Carr’s book is the unforgettable Laszlo Kreizler, a gifted but troubled doctor whose use of psychological theory in the pursuit of the killer becomes a grand obsession.

Kreizler, a psychiatric Sherlock Holmes, assembles an antique (but quite politically correct) version of the A-team to assist him in identifying and tracking down the killer. There’s Moore, of course, but also an African American man named Cyrus, a former whorehouse piano man and reformed cop-killer; a pair of comical Jewish cops who are presented as the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of the NYPD but turn out to be masters at everything from gross anatomy to handwriting analysis; and a derringer-toting secretary named Sara who invents herself as a police detective--and always seems to show up when her brains and her pistol are in urgent demand.

Then, too, Carr manages to decorate his story with cameo appearances by various historical personages, including Theodore Roosevelt (“Bully! This is what I like--a scientific approach!”), J.P. Morgan, William James, Lincoln Steffens and Anthony Comstock, all of whom are given roles in an elaborate subplot that makes the murder investigation a focal point of ward politics, mob rivalries and social turmoil in New York on the verge of the 20th Century.

“Let this man keep killing,” cries Kreizler at one point, when archbishops, moguls and mobsters combine to suppress his investigation because they all fear the unsettling social and political implications of his psychological theories. “It’s what they want. He’s part of their precious social order--without such creatures they’ve no scapegoats for their own wretched brutality!”

   

Even more crucial to “The Alienist,” however, is Carr’s marvelous use of the streets of New York as a stage on which to play out his story of crime and punishment. Turn-of-the-century New York is rendered in glorious and intriguing detail--Carr gives us not only the flash and glitter of a night at the opera or a 12-course midnight dinner at Delmonico’s, but also the hellish poverty of tenement life and the medieval horrors of the lunatic asylums.

Indeed, much of the story unfolds in the brothels, where 10-year-old boys are dressed up as girls and offered up as playthings for men with especially twisted sexual yearnings. And the particulars of how these boys live--and, especially, how they die at the hands of the mysterious killer--are so graphic, so bizarre, that certain passages are horrific and sometimes downright repulsive.

Still, Carr manages to enlist our wholehearted sympathies for the young victims of the serial killer and the intrepid team of self-styled detectives who pursue him, and we can hardly put aside the book until we find out whether it is the killer or the alienist who prevails.

Even if Carr’s book sometimes resembles, say, “The Seven Percent Solution,” it’s entirely successful on its own terms--a high-spirited, charged-up and unfailingly smart thriller that puts Carr’s scholarship to good use.

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