- Megan Bingham
"Prior to the twentieth century, persons suffering from mental illness were thought to be 'alienated,' not only from the rest of society but from their own true natures. Those experts who studied mental pathologies were therefore known as alienists."
2 o'clock A.M., March 3, 1896, New York, New York. John Moore, a freelance crime reporter for the New York Times, is awakened by a sharp knocking at his front door. He's startled to discover that it's Stevie "the Stevepipe" Taggert, a young boy who works for his friend and renowned alienist, Doctor Laszlo Kreizler. With no explanation, the boy takes Moore to a scene of a crime that Kreizler insists he sees in person.
When Moore arrives at the scene—the unfinished Williamsburg Bridge—police commissioner and future president Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt is already among the elaborate maze of steel supports, looking distressed. "How is your stomach?" he asks Moore. Seconds later, Moore understands the unusual question. The victim is a 13-year-old immigrant boy, Georgio "Gloria" Santorelli, who worked as a prostitute at a local brothel. The boy has been slaughtered like an animal.
Due to the corruption of the city police force and the number of child prostitutes throughout the city that went missing or possibly killed every day, officers on the scene make it clear that murders of such victims are usually ignored. That's when Roosevelt turns to his and Moore's friend, a criminal psychologist at the infamous Bellevue Hospital, Doctor Laszlo Kreizler. Throughout the medical world, Kreizler's theories are considered a bit unconventional. He believes that individuals upbring affects his future way of thinking, possibly causing him to commit crimes due to trauma. After examining the boy's body, Kreizler connects the murder with two other children, whose bodies bore similar gruesome marks. Roosevelt then reveals that he knows of two other recent murders that match the same pattern. With Kreizler and Moore's expertise in their respective fields, along with the first woman on the city police force, Sarah Howard, Roosevelt decides to open a potentially difficult investigation. No matter what it takes and how deep they must go, they are determined the murderer will be brought to justice.
With twists and turns around every corner, Caleb Carr's The Alienist is an exquisite historical mystery. It is also a riveting detective novel, set in a moment of history when the idea of the serial killer has only recently come about. The story takes place eight years after the Jack the Ripper murders in London, months after Chicago captured the World's Fair murderer H.H. Holmes, and at a time when the term "psychopath" was new to scientists abroad. To add to the authenticity of the novel, Carr combines fact with fiction by bringing in historical names such as Roosevelt, New York Evening Post reporter Lincoln Steffens, muckraking journalist Jacob Riis, and industrial financier J.P. Morgan—all who were important figures of the time. Carr's masterpiece may feel like a Sherlock Holmes tale, but it reads like a historically accurate, modern-day thriller—one that will leave you guessing to the very end.
The Alienist is also an upcoming American television period drama. The eight-episode series will star Daniel Brühl as Laszlo Kreizler; Luke Evans as John Moore; and Dakota Fanning as Sarah Howard. It is set to premiere on the television network on TNT January 22, 2018. For more reads like The Alienist, check out our book match and the booklist Murder by Gaslight.