Blogger’s note: I shudder to admit that until about a month ago, I had no idea the then-forthcoming TNT miniseries “The Alienist” was actually based on a 23-year-old novel. I happened upon it while finishing my birthday book shopping spree, on an endcap featuring titles that were “hitting the big screen.”
Despite its length, I had no trouble finishing the book more than a week before the series premiere on Jan. 22. I have a few small bug-a-boos with the show so far, but when does a TV or movie adaptation ever do a book full justice?
“The Alienist (Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, #1)” by Caleb Carr
Published Oct. 24, 2006, by Random House (first published Dec. 15, 1994)
“Prior to the twentieth century, persons suffering from mental illness were thought to be ‘alienated,’ not only from the rest of society but from their own true natures. Those experts who studied mental pathologies were therefore known as alienists.”
Although a work of fiction, “The Alienist” opens up a chapter in history that many of us know nothing about, in terms of mental health awareness, criminal studies, forensics, American poverty, immigrant life…I could go on and on.
“The Alienist” follows an investigation into the grisly murders of young boys, most of them forced into prostitution, in New York City in 1896. Alienist Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, a controversial figure due to his misunderstood line of work, is determined to figure out who is responsible for the killings. With the help of journalist John Schuyler Moore; Sara Howard, one of the first women employed by the NYPD; and NYPD sergeants Marcus and Lucius Isaacson, Kreizler delves into the killer’s world. Why does he prey on “boy-whores”? What drives him to kill them? And when will he kill again?
There is a sense of urgency in the story from beginning to end as the team battles every level of the city’s society — including the corrupt NYPD and its new commissioner, Theodore Roosevelt — to track down the culprit. Although the book is lengthy and the print is small, the short chapters are packed with action and intrigue that makes “The Alienist” hard to put down.
My favorite character, perhaps not surprisingly, was Sara. I appreciate her no-nonsense attitude and determination. How difficult it must have been to work among men, dealing with sexism and harassment on a daily basis.
Kreizler himself is an interesting character, of course. Alienists were widely perceived as evil and dangerous because they were studying the illnesses that plague the mind. And we all know that mental illness was a source of fear and shame even more so a century ago than today, so it’s no surprise that anyone seeking to understand how the human mind works would be maligned by society.
The mystery in “The Alienist” is unique because, throughout most of the book, we know who is killing the boys but we don’t know why. When the team also forms a theory as to when the next murder might occur, all hell breaks loose as they attempt to intervene.
Written in painstaking and graphic detail, “The Alienist” gives a startling insight into how forensic psychology has evolved over the last 125 years and shows why caring for the mind and spirit is just as important as caring for the body.
About the author
Caleb Carr is an American novelist and military historian. The son of Lucien Carr, a former UPI editor and a key Beat generation figure, he was born in Manhattan and lived for much of his life on the Lower East Side. He attended Kenyon College and New York University, earning a B.A. in military and diplomatic history. He is a contributing editor of MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History and writes frequently on military and political affairs.
Photo and bio courtesy of author’s Goodreads profile