Back in 1896, author Caleb Carr points out in a prefatory note to this highly diverting historical thriller, ”persons suffering from mental illness were thought to be ‘alienated,’ not only from the rest of society but from their own true natures.” Hence alienist was the 19th-century term for what we would today call a forensic psychiatrist, an investigator who attempts to deduce patterns from the horrific evidence of deadly crimes. We’re talking The Silence of the Lambs with horse-drawn carriages and spats.
Ah, but there’s a good deal more to Carr’s novel than that. The very idea of attempting to compile psychological profiles of violent offenders was considered wildly subversive in the Gilded Age. So much so that the protagonists of The Alienist, intent upon capturing a serial killer preying on boy prostitutes in the teeming slums of New York’s Lower East Side, spend as much time and energy hiding their activities from the NYPD as from the murderer himself.
New York in 1896, see, was in the middle of one of its periodic upheavals over revelations of police corruption-a state senate committee had called for widespread indictments-leading to the appointment of none other than Theodore Roosevelt himself, the once and future Rough Rider and President of the United States, to be commissioner of police. Other notables who play cameo roles in Carr’s richly detailed, evocative portrait of New York at the turn of the century include financier J. Pierpont Morgan, the most powerful man in America, the brilliant anthropologist Franz Boas, and Anthony Comstock, the ruthless and fanatical post office censor.
The real focus of The Alienist, however, is on one Laszlo Kreizler, ”’the enigma,’ the brilliant doctor whose studies of the human mind have disturbed so many people so profoundly.” Can he succeed in capturing the deranged killer whose very existence politicians, churchmen, and newspaper editors refuse to acknowledge, since to do so would be to admit both the existence of homosexual child brothels and the police corruption that keeps them in business? Appealing to his Harvard classmate Roosevelt for help, Kreizler assembles an offbeat team: two brilliant Jewish detectives, brothers, shunned by the nightstick-happy Irish cops of the era, a pistol-packing feminist named Sara Howard, and John Schuyler Moore, a risk-taking police beat reporter for The New York Times. Mingling wonderfully pungent, if occasionally wordy, descriptions of New York life in an era he makes sound both hauntingly familiar and impossibly remote, Carr puts together a first-rate tale of crime and punishment that will keep readers guessing until the final pages. If The Alienist’s final melodramatic confrontation on an overlook affording a sweeping view of the city impresses one as just a bit too conveniently cinematic for so literate a novel, it’s an understandable sin these days, and one Carr’s grateful readers will surely forgive.