Caleb Carr Critical Essays

Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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."