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."
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....
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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.
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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...
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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 editor and his agent a twenty-page proposal for the new book. It would examine a serial killer who roamed New York City in 1896, preying on young male prostitutes, and the three men who united to stop him: John Schuyler Moore, a New York Times reporter; Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, an "alienist," as psychiatrists were then called; and Theodore Roosevelt, New York's police commissioner at the time. The book would also explore one of the first cases in which forensic psychiatry was used to catch a killer; just as important, it would capitalize on the boom in serial-killer lit.
Suzanne Gluck, Carr's agent at ICM, and Ann Godoff, his editor at Random House, loved the proposal. Yes, it was crowded with historical detail—Carr's...
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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 Kreizler, who treats the mentally ill, then thought to be merely alienated from their true natures. Part Sigmund Freud, part Sherlock Holmes, Kreizler constantly challenges the medical (and political) establishment with his radical theories that childhood experiences can influence an adult's actions.
Kreizler's doctrine of "context" appalls both the "free will" theorists, who believe that sheer force of willpower could overcome psychic ailments, and the physicians, who believe that psychopaths have organically diseased brains. When a sadistic murderer begins killing and disemboweling young male prostitutes, Kreizler is ridiculed for his idea that "no adult's personality can be truly understood without first comprehending the...
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