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.)