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The Alienist by Caleb Carr

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Caleb Carr’s The Alienist set in turn-of-the-century New York bases upon the links between present and past by opening with a description of a burial. The burial is that of Theodore Roosevelt, twenty-sixth president of the United States of America, on 8 January 1919. The presence of historical event points to the co-existence of real and fictional characters, and allows the author to employ the retrospective narration in the novel. The fact that the story of a series of murders in New York in 1896 is being narrated retrospectively is emphasized by the fact that even Roosevelt’s burial is being narrated after the fact, as the narrator, John Schuyler Moore, and Laszlo Kreizler, the alienist of the novel, discuss it over dinner in a restaurant frequently visited by them during the events of 1896, and which Moore observes sadly is ‘on its way out like the rest of us’ (Carr, 7).

Carr creates very detailed description of the world were his characters live. Certainly the author had to carry out a scrupulous research of New York history of the 1890s to present such a vivid picture as he did. Carr’s historically grounded approach gives his readers a comprehensive understanding of the history of the times. The filthy narrow streets of the poor districts come together with the luxury of the districts inhabited by the rich. Carr masterfully intertwines past and present even in the everyday details. Thus John Schuyler Moore is living in a house which still has one gas lamp but in which the telephone is part of daily life and a constant irritant to his grandmother: “John! … Who in the world was on the telephone?” (Carr, 30) The New York elevated railroad clatters along Sixth Avenue; the “dozen-storied” National Shoe and Leather Bank looks down on “squat, ornate Victorian monuments” (Carr, 152, 153); and “the electrical chair is increasingly usurping the gallows” (Carr, 37).

The characters are also described with the every bit of detail thus seem real and believable.  Carr employs a trio of principle detectives in The Alienist, each of them having own philosophy. Dr. Kreizler, the principle detective, is interested in the pathologies which drive the actions of those “suffering from mental illness [who] were thought to be ‘alienated,’ not only from the rest of society but from their own true natures” (Carr, 75). Kreitzler’s character is that of a bright but arrogant psychologist whose ideas are usually called into question by his colleagues. He is not a simple character and evokes an ambiguous attitude from his fellows. The second detective in The Alienist is Theodore Roosevelt and he serves to locate this story of detection in the tangible historical world of New York in the 1890s.

More specifically, however, he represents the dual Progressive drive to rid society of terrible crimes and of a New York police force penetrated with corruption. In creating this character Carr masterfully follows the image, restored by Roosevelt’s biographers, of full of enthusiasm, intelligent person striving for progressive reform. The third detective, John Schuyler Moore, through whose perspective reader gets this story, is an impulsive though a little lazy and, obviously, the whole narration is somewhat effected by his character. In telling the story, he tries to make sense of the different explanations of Kreizler and Roosevelt. These explanations have different philosophical bases, and Carr includes as an epigraph this statement from William James’s Principles of Psychology: “Whilst part of what we perceive comes through our senses from the object before us, another part (and it may be the larger part) always comes out of our own mind” (Carr, 3).

This story turns out to be one of serial murders and of their detection by Roosevelt, Laszlo Kreizler, Moore, and a team of amateur or detectives. Detective stories regularly begin with a death and even a scene around a graveside and the ensuing story is the investigation of the murder and usually the apprehension of the murderer. In the usual detective stories the past, which leads up to the death and burial, and the future, discovering how, why and by whom the murder was committed, are thereby connected. Yet, in The Alienist, the burial is of one of the detectives and it signals not the initiation of the process of detection but the point at which the story of detection can at last be told. The burial of the historical figure, Theodore Roosevelt, is the stimulus for Kreizler and the narrator to meet again and tell a story that had been hidden for many years.

The investigation of the series of murders that shattered New York City comprises an absorbing and thrilling story of how the team of detectives, despite the unwillingness of police to assist, involves itself into collecting evidence and analyzing that evidence. Through this analysis they try to puzzle out a picture of the serial killer. While following this investigation process reader has to bear in mind the fact that it occurs when forensic sciences were only evolving. Such forensic procedure as fingerprinting, not to mention DNA detection, was highly suspected in a historical moment the story runs. Despite that in the pursuit of John Beecham, the serial killer of the novel, the Isaacsons defend the recent use of forensic science in detection: Marcus spoke confidentially. “It’s called dactyloscopy.” “Oh,” I said. “You mean fingerprinting.” “Yes,” Marcus replied, “that’s the colloquial term.” “But—” Sara broke in.

“I mean no offence, Detective Sergeant, but dactyloscopy has been rejected by every police department in the world.” (Carr, 115) Marcus Isaacson demonstrates the new technique with a photograph of a fingerprint of the murderer on a nail of a victim. In their base room, the detectives pinpoint the dates and locations of Beecham’s killings on a map of Manhattan. Again the relationship between the past and the present, crucial to both historical and detective constituents of the story, is further developed in the image of two cities. By revealing the traces of past events, the group of detectives unearths a different, hidden city beneath the everyday city. This city is delineated in space and time by the dates and locations of the murders that the detectives are investigating.

The serial murders at the centre of The Alienist are located as part of the crime-waves that Roosevelt faced during his tenure as president of the Board of Commissioners of New York City’s Police Department. Carr neatly positions the historical Roosevelt and the fictional Roosevelt. The central question Carr seems to be putting in this story is what kind of detection is needed to explain the historical and psychological causes of serial murders of a particularly horrifying kind, involving torture and butchery of young, male prostitutes. And insofar as there is a preferred answer, Carr suggests that the detection should be scientific.

The issue of historical authenticity is aptly related to a fictional genre in Caleb Carr’s work. As already stated, Carr re-creates New York City in the 1890s, a historically recognizable world but one which is populated by a mixture of fictional and historical figures. At the beginning of The Alienist there is a description of New York street life, mediated through the narrator:

When I reached [Sixth Avenue] the force of air suddenly changed directions as it swept under the tracks of the New York Elevated Railroad line, which ran above either side of the street just inside the sidewalks. The shift blasted my umbrella inside out, along with those of several other members of the throng that was hustling under the tracks; and the combined effect of the heightening wind, the rain, and the cold was to make the usually bustling rush hour seem absolute pandemonium. Making for a cab as I struggled with my cumbersome, useless umbrella, I was cut off by a merry young couple who maneuvered me out of their way with no great finesse and clambered into my hansom. I swore loudly against their progeny and shook the dead umbrella at them, prompting the woman to scream in fright and the man to fix an anxious eye on me. (Carr, 31)

Muddy streets, Victorian-style structures, smell from dirty tenements, licit and illicit ways of life in the Lower East Side and the attitudes prevalent in the society of those days are depicted in so many details and with such precision that readers can easily picture the image of 19th century New York. And, having recreated the daily life of that era, Carr allows Roosevelt and other historical figures to come and go. Rarely are their appearances used as background authenticity, however; instead, these figures become part of the story. To make the story historically and scientifically plausible Carr did, obviously, a great amount of work to get a relevant knowledge in criminal science, profiling techniques, forensic psychology, for this practice was drastically developing at the time of story what gives the novel a fair amount of credibility.

The language of the novel is a bit more sophisticated than that found in usual detective stories but such choice for language only adds to the authenticity of the events narrated. On the other hand, the gruesome and overwrought wording, which tends to be shaped in surfeited discourse makes reading this novel a little complicated process. But while it is still fiction written to entertain readers the novel lack, in these terms, narrative fluency. Nevertheless, this effect could be intended to emphasize the suspense and the viscidity of the investigation process expounded on few hundred pages.


Carr, Caleb. (2002). The Alienist (1994) London: Warner.

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