Christopher Lehmann-Haupt (review date 29 March 1994)

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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 and Marcus, whom Roosevelt has hired onto his more progressive police force. Over a sumptuous multi-course dinner at Delmonico's, the Isaacsons introduce Kreizler to new investigative techniques like anthropometry, the measurement of body parts, and dactyloscopy, the science of fingerprinting. The Isaacsons also believe that dead retinas retain the final images impressed on them. They wonder if this explains why the killer gouges his (or her) victims' eyes out.

Yet Kreizler and his colleagues are not free to investigate these conundrums in a vacuum. Unhappily, the mad killer works on a schedule apparently dictated by religious holidays and there is an abundance of those coming up. As a voice keeps whispering in the back of Moore's mind, "Hurry up or a child will die!" Moreover, certain forces are working to thwart Kreizler's investigation.

When J. P. Morgan gathers a group of powerful citizens to confront Kreizler and Moore, Anthony Comstock, "the notorious censor of the U.S. Post Office," expresses his outrage on behalf of respectable society. "'Rank determinism!' Comstock declared, unable to contain himself. 'The idea that every man's behavior is decisively patterned in infancy and youth—it speaks against freedom, against responsibility! Yes, I say it is un-American!'"

Mr. Carr is by and large successful in bringing to life his period thriller. An editor at MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History and the author of The Devil Soldier, a biography of the American mercenary Frederick Townsend Ward, among other books, Mr. Carr has lovingly evoked not only a physical sense of old New York but the spirit of the time as well, when the powers in charge were worried about unrest among the masses of cheap immigrant labor.

The only real weakness of the book lies in the stringent rationality of Kreizler's investigation. The more his logic makes sense the less threatening his quarry seems, at least to the reader. For if the murderer is purely the product of negative conditioning, then he or she is somehow drained of evil. As Moore sums up:

Kreizler emphasized that no good would come of conceiving of this person as a monster, because he was most assuredly a man (or a woman); and that man or woman had once been a child. First and foremost, we must get to know that child, and to know his parents, his siblings, his complete world. It was pointless to talk about evil and barbarity and madness; none of these concepts would lead us any closer to him. But if we could capture the human child in our imaginations—then we could capture the man in fact.

True, the narrator of The Alienist later distances himself somewhat from this outlook by lightly mocking Kreizler's radical determinism. Still, the story's fatalism grows tedious. You begin to long for a touch, say, of bad old Hannibal Lecter. Nor does it help that throughout most of the story none of the major characters are directly threatened by the killer. Of course, it is deplorable that children are being murdered. But none of them figure strongly enough in the story to arouse the reader's visceral identification.

Still, despite the absence of a truly evil threat and despite the somewhat musty quality of the narrative—with its pseudo-Victorian prose, its mustache-twirling villains and its cliff-hanging chapter endings—The Alienist does keep its philosophical questions simmering. And by the time these are resolved we have been caught up in the resolution of the action. If Mr. Carr's novel remains somewhat mechanical, its parts are intricate enough to keep us entertained with a simulacrum of the past.

Bret Easton Ellis (review date April 1994)

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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.

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 to a pulpy, middlebrow thriller, they ultimately (at least for the first three-quarters of the book) help sink it. The case under investigation is as gruesome as anything out of James Ellroy, but it feels as if it had been rewritten by James Michener. Paramount Pictures has already staked $500,000 on Carr's story for producer Scott Rudin, but whether the studio is going to be willing to spend the additional $60 million it will take to re-create turn-of-the-century Manhattan for Cruising-Meets-Edith Wharton is another, altogether more immediate mystery.

The book's narrator is John Moore, the Times reporter, who is, unfortunately, the least interesting character. Since he's a journalist and not a novelist, we get long, impressively detailed descriptions of Delmonico's, the Metropolitan Opera, what 10th and Broadway might have looked like on a foggy spring morning 100 years ago. This is all un-leavened by dialogue that is almost completely expository—huge blocks of info bereft of drama. For all its elegance, The Alienist lacks the nasty, prankish fun—the dirty kick—we expect from a thriller. It's a stodgy, plodding Masterpiece Theatre-style thriller, so genteel that one can almost hear the ghost of Alastair Cooke narrating in the background, until you realize the ghost of Alastair Cooke is narrating in the background. It's a "literary" humanist-liberal story with an anachronistic smattering of P.C. elements that seems pandering: the wildly independent career woman, the noble black bodyguard, a fairly contemporary concern with gay prostitution and psychology.

As a historian, Carr knows more about 1896 New York than any writer under 40, but as a novelist he's smart in all the wrong ways. His fusion of a murder mystery with the politics of the historical moment provides enticement, but The Alienist is only sporadically suspenseful and often stylistically moribund. There's no point of view here, no attitude, nothing suggestive or elliptical or ambiguous. Our narrator is a straightforward, spotless good guy. For all its historical data and abundance of arcane exotica, as a novel it's a chore to read because it veers toward the mechanical and the clichéd. Its only real concern (and attribute) is to be an entertainment.

And as far as entertainments go, it is a big and busy one, and protracted as it is (500 pages), it's technically accomplished. Talent and taste (sometimes too much) are evident. Almost every chapter ends with a cliff-hanger, and at its core is a killer with some genuinely creepy tics. The action picks up in the last 100 pages as a showdown nears in the bowels of the Croton Reservoir, and these elements help make Carr's book a cinematic tome—but imagine Merchant-Ivory remaking a 1950s Hammer horror flick and you'll get the idea.

Stephen Dobyns (review date 3 April 1994)

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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 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 view. John Schuyler Moore is a charming character, but the consequence of his charm is that the changes the narration into chat. We are presented with dreadful mutilations—eyeballs gouged out, genitals removed—and chat seems an inappropriate tone for such material.

Added to this are the bromides with which Moore energizes his narrative. These aren't quite clichés, but one has a sense of over-familiarity. When Paul Kelly appears with his "chiseled, Black-Irish features" the air suddenly becomes "charged with oppressive threat." At another point Roosevelt asks, "Do you have any evidence to support such a theory?" Dr. Kreizler responds, "None, of the kind you mean. I have only a lifetime of studying similar characters. And the intuition it has given me." About one of the murder victims, Moore says, "Whatever Ernst Lohmann's way of making a living, whatever his error in trusting a stranger, the penalty was too severe, the price too abominably high." After the death of a friend, Moore thinks, "Every human being must find his way to cope with such severe loss."

We find many such examples. It may be argued that a page-turner requires this sort of familiar writing: getting into such a book is like pulling on a pair of well-worn and comfortable blue jeans. "Bully!" says Roosevelt. "This is what I like—a scientific approach!"

And to be sure The Alienist is a pleasing entertainment. The plot moves forward without much struggle and the events are diverting. It is like an agreeable train ride: a pleasant destination and gratifying scenes to look at through the windows. Mr. Carr knows his history and the details are interesting. But perhaps it would have been a stronger book if written in the third person. John Schuyler Moore, for all of his turn-of-the-century trappings, is basically a contemporary voice. His values and cultural background are of the 1990's more than the 1890's. He is our representative through the world that Mr. Carr creates, but because of Moore's limitations—the chat, the hipness—he also becomes an obstruction. This is primarily a problem of tone: it is difficult for a novel in which children are killed to function as a comedy.

Stephen J. Dubner (essay date 4 April 1994)

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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 writing always was—but it read just like a novel.

Guess what, Carr told them. It is a novel. Roosevelt may indeed have been police commissioner at the time, but Kreizler, Moore, and the killer existed only in Carr's imagination. "I didn't think you would entertain fiction from me," he explained, "without my presenting it in some unorthodox way." Godoff was calm for the first fifteen minutes, then slammed her hand on the table. "Well," she said, "let's see what we can do."

Carr got a $65,000 advance for The Alienist. Last spring, he turned in a 700-page manuscript, which immediately began a well-hyped orbit around Hollywood.

Suddenly … Mike Nichols is looking at the Caleb Carr manuscript! Kathleen Kennedy is looking at the Caleb Carr manuscript! Scott Rudin is looking at the Caleb Carr manuscript!

Carr's phone would not stop ringing. He had never had this problem, and the pressure became a bit much. So, on the morning of June 25, 1993, a Friday, he put on his black Converse high-tops, shouldered his golf clubs, stepped outside his East Village apartment, and headed for Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx.

Rudin, meanwhile, had decided he had to buy the rights to Carr's book. Immediately. He offered Carr's agent $400,000—good only until 3 P.M. Hollywood time.

Carr, of course, couldn't hear his phone ringing from the eighth-hole dogleg. Rudin bumped the price up to $450,000. Carr, on the fourteenth hole, was oblivious.

By the time Carr was ready for cocktails—having shot a respectable 88—Rudin had offered half a million dollars. When he got back to town, Carr called Rudin to accept the offer. "You know," he said, "I used to read books in your development office for 50 bucks a pop."

"Well," said Rudin, "I guess the price has gone up."

Last week, The Alienist finally arrived in bookstores. Only now will Carr discover if his greatest feat of deception has succeeded: While his novel might strike some as little more than a baroque murder mystery (Silence of the Lambs meets Ragtime is how Random House is hawking it), in truth, The Alienist is practically a blueprint for the very sharp mind of Caleb Carr, revealing just how strangely and personally well versed he is in New York history, psychology, child abuse—even murder.

"I remember being here for Son of Sam the summer of '77," Carr is saying, "which was the most cool-bizarre experience. It was the great spectator sport that summer. Every day was 'Hey, did he get somebody last night? Did they get him? Did he send another letter?' I remember shooting pool in a bar on 13th Street, which isn't there anymore, the night they caught him, and it was total goose-bump time." Carr leans forward in his living-room chair, fervent, as if he's about to share a secret, gory detail. "And when you saw a picture of him, all of a sudden he was a real guy, just this poor schnook being led away by the cops."

Carr lives alone in a cautiously comfortable one-bedroom walk-up on 2nd Street just east of First Avenue (if it were half a block farther east, ICM's messengers would refuse to visit). While writing The Alienist, he turned the apartment into a sort of war room, papering the walls with period maps of police precincts and political wards, schematics of the human brain, and a blizzard of typed notes charting each fictional movement of Carr's monstrous serial killer and his team of pursuers.

Carr's most prized possessions are his grandmother's Tiffany lamp, its periwinkle shade decorated with swirly gold lily pads, and a framed print of Heroes of the Republic, which portrays Ulysses S. Grant and a raft of ruddy-faced Union officers on horseback, triumphant.

Carr has a sort of nineteenth-century face himself. He is handsome in a rakish way, with straight hair that hangs to his shoulders, deep-set green eyes behind rimless glasses, and a mouthful of crooked teeth. He is an uneasy hybrid of bohemianism, which his parents embraced, and aristocracy, which runs deep in his family (an ancestor, Dabney Carr, was Thomas Jefferson's favorite brother-in-law). There is a constant edge to Carr's voice—as if he's a kid who's already been suspended by the principal and knows he can take a few more shots without further penalty.

Sitting back after his Son of Sam story, Carr mulls a connection. "Frankly, what interested me about serial killers," he says, "was that if I had gone four or five steps in another direction, I could have been one of these guys—the anger they had, the way they chose to embody it."

Carr's friends, when they hear this quote, can't believe he actually said it. Yes, he is irascible sometimes, and distrustful, and morose. But all agree: No one paints Caleb Carr darker than Caleb Carr himself.

He'll say this, for instance: "I'm the only kid in my family who never tried to kill himself; I kind of figured somebody else was going to kill me anyway." But he'll cackle after saying it, and start talking about the huge games of Capture the Flag he still organizes at his family's country house in upstate New York; or about how Dylan is the sole beacon of morality on Beverly Hills 90210; or about what a great father Teddy Roosevelt was.

The subject of fatherhood comes up often in conversations with Carr, usually in anger. Lucien Carr, 69, now lives in Washington, D.C. He retired last September after 47 years at UPI, ending his run as chief of the world desk. In 1944, he was a sophomore at Columbia, a very handsome, talented, and troubled young writer. He was also the center of a circle that included Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs—none of whom had yet written anything of note.

Carr might have made more cultural noise than any of them had he not killed a man that summer. The man's name was David Kammerer, and he had been Lucien Carr's scoutmaster back in St. Louis. Kammerer was clearly infatuated with the boy, following him to each prep school and college that Carr was admitted to and then kicked out of. In New York, as always, he insinuated himself into Carr's life. Late one summer night, in the tall grass of Riverside Park, Kammerer did something to Carr—kissed him, perhaps—that made Carr pull out his Boy Scout knife and ram it into Kammerer's chest. He rolled the body into the Hudson and, with Kerouac's help, got rid of Kammerer's eyeglasses and the knife.

Kerouac spent a few days in jail as an accomplice; Carr, who was able to convince the court that he had been defending himself against an unwanted homosexual advance, was out in two years.

A family friend got Lucien Carr a job at UPI in New York. He married a reporter there, Francesca von Hartz, and had three sons: Simon, Caleb, and Ethan. Lucien gave up writing anything other than newspaper articles, but, living with his family on Horatio Street, he remained a magnet for Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs.

"They were nice enough guys," says Caleb, "but they were really weird. To be a young child, particularly a young male child, around people like Allen and Burroughs was a little unnerving. I became a writer despite them, basically. It never occurred to me that they would be brought up in the story of my success. And, to a certain extent, it infuriates me that they are."

Carr's childhood was, by all accounts, a rough one, and in an early interview, he flatly declares the period off-limits. But, little by little, the stories spill out—sad, bitter details about neglect and drunkenness and beatings in the middle of the night.

Lucien and Caleb Carr's relationship today is distant, at best. Lucien won't talk about the long-ago violence: "I think it's something that, if it did exist, Caleb would remember far better than I."

Caleb's parents divorced when he was 8. His mother, a sweet woman with bad luck in men, married John Speicher, an editor and novelist who, according to Caleb, was as good a drinker as her first husband. He brought along three daughters from another marriage to create what Caleb calls "the dark Brady Bunch."

"It was a difficult situation, and we all spun pretty fast," says Simon Carr, 40, a painter who lives in the West Village. (Ethan Carr, 35, is a Parks Department landscape architect in Washington, D.C.)

The political scholar and former Times editor James Chace, 62, was friendly with John Speicher and has known Caleb since he was 9. "He's survived a lot, Caleb has," says Chace. "He had not-such-perfect role models." Still, says Chace, as chaotic as the house was, it was also full of learning. "The thing is, most people tend to be narrow," he says. "But all the Carrs knew music incredibly well, history, literature—they're extraordinarily remarkable."

The family moved from the genteel West Village to a loft on the nastiest stretch of 14th Street, between Second and Third Avenues. Caleb spent as much time out of the house as he could. Central Park, the Metropolitan Museum, and the movies, especially war movies—the more heroic, the better. By 12, Caleb was already a military buff, hanging battle-axes and coats of arms in his bedroom. "There's no question that I have a lifelong fascination with violence," he says. "Part of it was a desire to find violence that was, in the first place, directed toward some sort of purposeful end, and second, governed by a definable ethical code. And I think it's fairly obvious why I would want to do that." In the swirl of a bohemian, jug wine household, Carr looked toward British colonialism and Hamiltonian aristocracy.

Since there was little money in the family, Caleb's grandmother Marion Carr paid for the boys' education. Caleb went to high school at Friends Seminary, on East 16th Street. As a devoted fan of warfare at a Quaker school, he stood out. There were other reasons, too: spontaneously reciting Schiller's "Ode to Joy" (in the ninth grade, in German), swimming across the mucky seal pond in Central Park Zoo (on a $40 dare), and devouring everything from Star Trek to Wagner to medieval history. "He had a kind of sophisticated, far-flung interest without any pretense or affectation," says Oren Jacoby, an old friend. "Puncturing affectation was what Caleb cared most passionately about."

Not everyone saw it that way. Despite excellent grades, he didn't get into Harvard, and settled for Kenyon College, in Ohio. He later found out why: His Friends transcript was marked SOCIALLY UNDESIRABLE. "I was fucking stunned," he says. "We had guys in our school who dealt pure opium and cocaine out of their fucking lockers, and the teacher would take them aside and have conversations. But me, because I was blowing things up, just making general mayhem—that kind of thing got no sympathy."

After two claustrophobic years at Kenyon, Carr moved back to New York and worked as a researcher at Foreign Affairs, where James Chace was the managing editor. Foreign Affairs is the house organ of the Council on Foreign Relations, and, therefore, the locus of Establishment politics. The Council was not amused, then, with Carr's first published work: a New York Times letter to the editor in October 1974 that skewered Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's vision of diplomacy. Carr was 19.

He went back to school, at NYU, studying military and diplomatic history. Not long after graduation, he published a highly autobiographical novel called Casing the Promised Land. It's a classic Bildungsroman, full of starry-eyed philosophizing and rock and roll (for several years, Carr played guitar in a punkish pop band called Hell and High Water). Casing is also classic Caleb Carr: very bighearted, very cynical.

Carr has pretty much written for a living—albeit a meager one—ever since: articles for the Times op-ed page ("Security Precedes Credibility") and MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History ("The Troubled Genius of Oliver Cromwell"), as well as the occasional play and screenplay. In 1988, Carr and James Chace co-wrote America Invulnerable, a history of American national-security policy. Carr's next book was The Devil Soldier (1992), an enthusiastically received biography of an American soldier of fortune named Frederick Townsend Ward, who became a national hero in China. One sentence early in the book, although written about its subject, captures its author as well: "Ward was neither an idealist nor a philosopher but an adventurous realist who sought to carve out a place in what had consistently been, for him, a hostile and violent world."

Carr has plenty of friends his own age, but he has also accumulated a number of father figures, Chace chief among them. On the other hand, some of Carr's closest friends can't vote yet. The Alienist is dedicated to the five teenagers who acted in Bad Attitudes, a Fox-TV movie Carr wrote in 1991. The production itself was nightmarish—to keep one particular line in the film, Carr threatened to burn down the studio—but he and the actors became good friends. "Caleb is constantly trying to realize that childhood isn't necessarily a horrible thing," says Ellen Blain, 17, "and I think the five of us helped him believe that."

But The Alienist seems to show that Carr is not fully convinced. The murder victims are children like Georgio Santorelli, a Lower East Side urchin who, beaten by his father, winds up working the skin trade. The book opens as Georgio's mutilated body is discovered on the Williamsburg Bridge.

Still, Carr was determined to write a historical novel, not a child-abuse screed. "Your job as a writer is to take what's important to you and make it into something imaginative," he says. "Every book Charles Dickens wrote was the same goddamn autobiography, but he put in the details that made them interesting, you know?"

For fourteen months, Carr lived The Alienist. He read dozens of books on serial killers and huddled with Dr. David Abrahamsen, a dean of forensic psychiatry. Friends would bump into Carr at odd hours, in odd parts of town, trying to track down addresses that had long disappeared. One ex-girlfriend recalls that during touch-football games, he'd talk brain dissection.

Sometimes, The Alienist falls into a beguiling, neo-Conan Doyle groove, mixing sharp deduction with a sort of let's-put-on-a-mystery zeal. At other times, Carr's homework intrudes. Bret Easton Ellis, who trumpeted his own serialkiller lust in American Psycho, just reviewed The Alienist for Vanity Fair. As a historian, Ellis wrote, "Carr knows more about 1896 New York than any writer under 40, but as a novelist, he's smart in all the wrong ways."

"There are some people in this world by whom it is honorable to be held in contempt," says Carr, "and he is one of them."

Carr has tried hard to be extravagant since Scott Rudin and Paramount Pictures gave him that half-million. He has taken lots of friends to Petrossian, and although he won't admit it, he has been exceedingly philanthropic. Two weeks ago, Carr took a vacation, his very first, in St. Kitts.

James Chace, who now edits World Policy Journal and teaches international relations at Bard, wonders, in all seriousness, if Carr might not end up working at the National Security Council one day.

Maybe, if he's not seduced by Hollywood first. The moment Rudin bought The Alienist, Carr was flown to Los Angeles and offered dozens of writing projects. "You'd go in to some very famous person's company," he recalls, "and you'd go, Oh my fucking God, that is the stupidest thing I have ever heard in my life. How do I get out of this room without insulting anybody?"

Things worked out nicely with Universal, though. Carr is adapting the Green Hornet radio serial for the studio; he's even more enthusiastic about a Universal TV show he's working on. "Basically," he says excitedly, "it's teens in space—Beverly Hills 90210 meets Star Trek."

Still, his motivation for writing The Alienist is never out of his mind. "I always think of Chuck Jones, the Warner Bros. cartoon guy," he says. "And I always remember an interview where the reporter said, 'Your cartoons are amazing because kids think they're so funny, and adults think they're so funny. Who were you making them for?' And Jones said, 'We were making them for ourselves. We thought they were funny.'" Carr stops himself, wondering if he's worthy of the comparison.

"If I had known that nothing would have come out of this book other than the advance, I still would have written it exactly the same," he continues. "But if you were to ask me to trade in this book, this whole career, and have my childhood be different, I probably would."

Paul Levine (review date 17 April 1994)

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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 facts of his individual experience."

Enter new York City Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt, who secretly appoints the doctor to investigate the murders, exclaiming "Bully, bully" and "By thunder" at the slightest provocation. Kreizler is aided by John Schuyler Moore, an aristocratic New York Times "scribbler," or police reporter, and Sara, a spunky secretary who yearns to be the city's first female cop.

Moore narrates the tale with reverence for the doctor's modern ways:

Kreizler emphasized that no good would come of conceiving of this person as a monster, because he was most assuredly a man (or a woman); and that man or woman had once been a child. First and foremost, we must get to know that child, and to know his parents, his siblings, his complete world. It was pointless to talk about evil and barbarity and madness; none of these concepts would lead us any closer to him. But if we could capture the human child in our imaginations—then we could capture the man in fact.

In classic feats of investigative deduction drawn against the backdrop of the city's roiling slums, the trio constructs the first psychological profile of a murderer, one that would do the FBI's behavioral science unit proud. Assisting this team of modernists are the brothers Marcus and Lucius Issacson, two young detectives trained in hand-writing analysis and dactyloscopy, known now as finger-printing.

When they're not debating whether a mother's mistreatment can cause a boy's mental illness, the investigators consume gluttonous midnight dinners at Delmonico's, Luchow's and Brubacher's. Carr's fine eye for period detail includes his description of sumptuous meals of turtle soup au clair, Creole eggs, broiled squab, saddle of lamb a la Colbert and "a liter of smooth, dark Wurzburger [beer] that had a head as thick as whipped cream."

In the style of E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime and other novels that mix fact and fiction, Carr peppers his languidly told tale with real characters. Juxtaposed to the crusading Roosevelt are millionaire J.P. Morgan and U.S. postal censor Anthony Comstock, who scheme to cover up the lurid crimes lest the masses become agitated. Journalists Lincoln Steffens and Jacob Riis play cameo roles.

In effect, this 1896 murder mystery doubles as a painless history lesson. The descriptions of time and place are dead-on perfect: The characters dash around New York in horse-drawn hansoms, doctors carry Gladstone bags and there are enough newspapers for real circulation wars. It was an era when the New York Times would not print the facts, much less the details, of gruesome crimes, and silk-stocking bishops conspired with politicians to keep the immigrant rabble from knowing that a murderer stalked their children.

The stark contrasts between Morgan's opulent Black Library and the teeming tenements where police dare not enter are reminders that crime and class distinction are hardly new. Neither is drug abuse, as gangsters snort cocaine or ingest morphine, and everyday citizens become addicted to chlorohydrate.

A historian by background, Carr clearly knows the difference between a hansom and a calash, a landau and a barouche. The dialogue is larded with expressions of the times, as Sara demands not to be "mollycoddled" by the men, who are given to exclaiming "Hell's Bells!" in out-rage. Stale-beer joints in the Tenderloin (serving the flat, tasteless dregs from kegs sold elsewhere) and utterly repulsive child brothels are described with seeming accuracy.

It is the attention to period detail and the modernistic psychological investigation that sets apart what would otherwise be a fairly conventional murder mystery. The long story never becomes tedious, and at the end the reader thirsts for another tale of Dr. Lazlo Kreizler, and another stein of Wurzburger as well.

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