Study Guide

Caleb Carr

Caleb Carr Essay - Critical Essays

Carr, Caleb

Introduction

Caleb Carr The Alienist

Born in 1955(?), Carr is an American novelist and nonfiction writer.

Set primarily in New York City during the spring of 1896, The Alienist (1994) details the efforts of a select and unorthodox group of investigators to track down a serial killer with a predilection for adolescent male prostitutes. Assembled at the behest of Theodore Roosevelt, the city's reform-minded police commissioner, the team includes John Schuyler Moore, a crime-reporter for the New York Times who also acts as the story's narrator; Laszlo Kreizler, a psychologist, or alienist in the language of the day; Sara Howard, a secretary who hopes to become the city's first female police officer; and Lucius and Marcas Isaacson, a pair of detectives with specialties in forensic medicine and various state-of-the-art techniques in criminal science. Under Kreizler's direction, the investigators gather and interpret evidence from the various crime scenes to formulate a hypothetical model of the killer. Their musings focus on the murderer's background, particularly his childhood, as Kreizler's theory of "context" posits that early experiences play a decisive role in an individual's later attitudes, idiosyncracies, and obsessions. The team's efforts are hampered by prominent citizens who consider Kreizler's psychological theories a threat to traditional social values and by members of New York's criminal underworld who hope to incite unrest among the city's immigrant population by convincing them that the police have no interest in pursuing a murderer of poor immigrant children. Reaction to The Alienist has been mixed. While some commentators considered Carr's explanation for the killer's actions overly sympathetic to the murderer, others noted that it highlights issues concerning free will and psychological determinism, and provides insight into the nature of evil. Although reviewers generally praised the plot as compelling, some found the narrative tedious and faulted Carr for using hackneyed elements from the thriller genre. Critics agree, however, that Carr succeeds in vividly evoking the place and mood of New York in the 1890s. As John Katzenbach argued, "what [Carr] does best is capture the excitement of a world on the verge of change, where invention was the stuff of daily miracle."

Criticism

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt (review date 29 March 1994)

SOURCE: "Of an Erudite Sleuth Tracking a Madman," in The New York Times, March 29, 1994, p. C17.

[Lehmann-Haupt is a Scottish-born American critic and novelist. In the review below, he remarks on the themes of The Alienist.]

You can practically hear the clip-clop of horses' hooves echoing down old Broadway in Caleb Carr's richly atmospheric new crime thriller, The Alienist, set in 19th-century New York City. You can taste the good food at Delmonico's. You can smell the fear in the air.

The year is 1896. On a March night so cold that horse waste has frozen in the streets, John Schuyler Moore, a police reporter for The New York Times, is awakened in his grandmother's house at 19 Washington Square North and summoned to the site of the newly begun Williamsburg Bridge, on the East River. There he encounters the new Police Commissioner, Theodore Roosevelt, so grimvisaged that his huge teeth are for a change not snapping. Inside the bridge's tower, Roosevelt shows Moore the multilated corpse of yet another boy from the brothels of lower Manhattan. A seemingly insane killer has struck once again.

The task of tracking this madman has been assigned to Moore's and Roosevelt's old friend from their Harvard days, Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, who is an alienist, or an expert on mental pathologies (minds that are alienated from themselves), as the novel's epigraph explains.

These three men became acquainted during their Harvard undergraduate years, when Kreizler debated William James on determinism, James having argued for free will, Kreizler having sided with psychological causation. The dredging up of this argument takes us to the philosophical heart of The Alienist, which explores the causes of insanity and criminality, and ultimately the nature of evil.

Having been secretly put in charge of the investigation, Kreizler begins asking questions about the crimes. Why do they always occur in a high place near water? What explains the sexual mutilation? Why are all the victims' eyes gouged out? What happened to the killer in his or her childhood, that would provoke such violence?

Kreizler also gains the services of two brilliant forensic specialists, the Isaacson brothers, Lucius...

(The entire section is 951 words.)

Bret Easton Ellis (review date April 1994)

SOURCE: "Victorian Vice," in Vanity Fair, Vol. 57, No. 4, April, 1994, p. 108.

[An American novelist, Ellis is best known for such novels as Less than Zero (1985) and American Psycho (1990). In the review below, he provides a mixed assessment of The Alienist.]

Manhattan, 1896. A serial killer haunts the city, mutilating boy prostitutes. In order to solve the case, Theodore Roosevelt, as New York City's police commissioner, brings together John Moore, a police reporter for The New York Times, Sara Howard, a police secretary, and Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, an old school chum who is now a brilliant "alienist" (in the 19th century, the mentally ill were called "alienated," and psychologists were thus labeled "alienists"), whose theories on child-parent relations pre-date Freud and provide insight into the mind of The Alienist's warped monster-cannibal.

What makes this novel so potentially fascinating is that these three are not detectives, and in the face of a skeptical pre-forensics society, they solve this mystery not by matching fibers and semen samples but by amassing a psychological profile of the killer. The Alienist is a large, commercial mixture of solid, impersonal craftsmanship and gothic horror; it's also a historical novel of New York manners dressed up in a garishly lurid thriller plot. It's prissy and ghoulish.

The writer, Caleb Carr, a contributing editor to Military History Quarterly and the author of a biography of soldier of fortune Frederick Townsend Ward, uses his formidable skills as a historian to good effect, but attached...

(The entire section is 688 words.)

Stephen Dobyns (review date 3 April 1994)

SOURCE: "New York Was a Heck of a Town," in The New York Times Book Review, April 3, 1994, p. 19.

[Dobyns is an American poet, novelist, and critic. In the following mixed review, he faults the narrative voice of The Alienist as inappropriate.]

The word "light"—often spelled "lite"—has come to signify a laudable quality in our society: light beer, light cigarettes, light hot dogs. As a qualifier for "reading," however, "light" has been replaced by the word "page-turner." One may read at a breakneck pace in order to discover what happens, or one may be turning the pages faster in a frantic search for substance. The Alienist, by the historian Caleb Carr, fits neatly into both categories.

Told by a turn-of-the-century New York Times reporter, John Schuyler Moore, the novel deals with the gruesome murders of a number of boy prostitutes in Manhattan in 1896. Alienist, a note tells us, is an outdated term for an expert in mental pathology. (A mentally ill person was considered alienated from his true nature and from society.)

The alienist hero is Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, who holds the newfangled beliefs that a person's actions can be understood by the context of his life and that those actions even suggest the context. For these ideas he is held up to much scorn. Still, Dr. Kreizler has been engaged by his old friend, New York City's Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt, to find the killer. Kreizler then engages John Schuyler Moore for his knowledge of the city, as well as two eccentric New York police detectives who believe in such pioneering techniques as fingerprinting. The fifth member of the group is Sara Howard, a derringer-toting young police secretary. She happens to be the first female to be hired by the New York Police Department. Together they begin their quest for the murderer, who operates by dropping down from rooftops and snatching boy prostitutes through the windows of their brothels.

Mr. Carr has done his research. This is both a curse and a blessing, for although the novel's ostensible subject is who-is-killing-these-children, the real subject is New York City in the 1890's.

Our team of detectives eats at Delmonico's, attends the opera and visits the new American Museum of Natural History. The murders occur at famous landmarks: Bartholdi's statue of Lady Liberty, the towers of the still-under-construction Williamsburg Bridge. The low life of lower Manhattan is carefully sifted: Five Points, the Dead Rabbit gang, Shang Draper's bawdy house on the corner of Sixth Avenue and 24th Street. And famous people make their appearances: the journalist Lincoln Steffens, the gang leader Paul Kelly, the anti-vice crusader Anthony Comstock, the financier J. P. Morgan.

It is possible to love one's research too much. At times in The Alienist the reader may feel that an event is occurring only because Mr. Carr has found a nice place for it to happen. At times, too, the author is simply touching a historical base, as in "we passed the graveyard at Trinity Church—where the father of the American economic system, Alexander Hamilton, lay buried." This is a long and complicated novel, and Mr. Carr's historical asides occasionally become so much chaff.

A slightly more serious problem is the novel's first-person point of...

(The entire section is 1393 words.)

Stephen J. Dubner (essay date 4 April 1994)

SOURCE: "Serial Killing for Fun and Profit," in New York Magazine, Vol. 27, No. 14, April 4, 1994, pp. 58-62.

[In the following article, based on a conversation with Carr, Dubner discusses the writing and reception of The Alienist as well as Carr's childhood and career.]

Caleb Carr is not above deception. Two years ago, for instance, it was time for the writer to start his next book. Although he had written a coming-of-age novel in 1980, Carr, 38, had been a nonfiction man ever since: politics and history mainly, military history especially. And that's what his publisher—and his readership, small though it was—expected of him.

He gave his...

(The entire section is 3017 words.)

Paul Levine (review date 17 April 1994)

SOURCE: "Psychology Yesterday," in Book World—Chicago Tribune, April 17, 1994, p. 4.

[Levine is an American novelist and critic. In the review of The Alienist below, he praises Carr's attention to historical detail.]

Eight years after Jack the Ripper terrorized the East End of London, an equally vicious killer was loose in the slums of lower Manhattan, preying on young male prostitutes. The murderer in The Alienist, Caleb Carr's elegant historical novel, is fictional, but the portrait of the Lower East Side with its "disorderly houses," undercover "fly cops" and gangsters called "rabbits" rings true.

The "alienist" is Dr. Lazlo...

(The entire section is 813 words.)