Inspired by Alice in Wonderland
The Alienist is a crime novel by Caleb Carr first published in 1994 and is the first book in the Kreizler series. It takes place in New York City in 1896, and includes appearances by many famous figures of New York society in that era, including Theodore Roosevelt and J. P. Morgan. The story follows Roosevelt, then New York City police commissioner, and Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, as their investigative team attempts to solve gruesome murders through new methods including fingerprinting and psychology.
On January 22, 2018, TNT premiered a ten-episode limited series based on the books. The series stars Daniel Brühl, Luke Evans, and Dakota Fanning as an ad hoc team assembled in mid-1890s New York City to investigate a serial killer who is murdering street children.
According to the New York Times, “movie rights were sold for half a million dollars before the book was even published.” But it’s a dense book with many characters, and no producer could get it right. “It’s been 25 years of battling against really bad interpretations of this book,” Carr told the New York Times.
Now, it all came to place.
“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.”
Although a work of fiction, “The Alienist” opens up a chapter in history that many of us know nothing about, in terms of mental health awareness, criminal studies, forensics, American poverty, immigrant life…I could go on and on.
“Carr does a credible job of describing the process by which a practitioner of the nascent field of forensic psychiatry might have attempted to discover how a child of those times could grow into a man who compulsively kills and ritually mutilates his young victims. Even the contemporary ‘alienists’ should find themselves comfortable with Kreizler’s techniques for reconstructing the killer’s personality.”
This book is not completely a 'whodunit' as you find out who the killer is before the end, but a 'whydunit.' This is a very early use of the profiling technique on a killer and a very interesting look at why a person is the way they are and what has brought them there.
There were several things that I really enjoyed about this books:
1) I was sucked into the story and I did not want to put it down
2) I found the pacing to be spot on, which can be tricky in this kind of procedural books. Sometimes the story itself can get lost in all the many details
3) Very vivid descriptions of turn of the century New York City and all that was happening there at the time with the gangs.
4) During this time women were not seen in the same light in the workplace as they are now, so seeing a strong woman in a prominent role in the investigation was refreshing.
Caleb Carr pointed out in an interview with Salon in 1997:
"I wanted to write a book with a female character whose reasons for being in the story did not depend on her falling in love with somebody. Women are still being brought up to believe that they have to build their bodies and their minds toward relationships and not toward independent existences of their own choosing. And I wanted to show that women can do that."
Sara’s inclusion in the novel as an intelligent, fiery, competent, and determinedly single-minded woman with the goal of becoming New York’s first female police officer is no accident. While her employment in the novel as police secretary is a clear nod to Theodore Roosevelt’s controversial decision to hire a female secretary upon becoming Police Commissioner, she is also representative on a more general level of those women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who had begun to push back against the prevailing view that the only proper role for women in society was as a doting wife and mother in the home; an ideology that had dominated American culture from the late eighteenth century onwards
A new novel, The Alienist at Armageddon, is scheduled to arrive this fall.