CALEB CARR – The Alienist. Laszlo Kreizler #1. Random House, hardcover, 1994. Bantam, paperback, 1995. TV adaptation: A ten-episode series premiered on TNT on January 22, 2018, with Daniel Brühl as Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, Luke Evans as John Moore, and Dakota Fanning as Sara Howard.

   The time is 1896, the place, New York City, at a time when Theodore Roosevelt, president (1895-1897) of the Board of Commissioners of New York City’s Police Department, is attempting to rid the Department of its corruption and inefficient antiquated methods, and open it up to “modern” ideas and procedures.

   Roosevelt’s struggle with the law enforcement establishment are mirrored in the attempts of his friend, Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, a psychologist (or alienist) to reform a profession opposed to believing that psychopaths are “produced by extreme childhood environments and experiences and [are] unaffected by any true pathology. Judged in context, the actions of such patients could be understood and even predicted (unlike those of the truly mad).” Or as the reporter-narrator puts it, “[we] set out on the trail of a murderous monster and ended up face to face with a frightened child.”

   Kreizler and Roosevelt are seen as threatening not only the beliefs of a profession but society itself. Thus, Kreizler and his team, hastily formed to discover the sadist who is killing and mutilating boy prostitutes, must operate secretly, and independently of the police.

   Carr has some of the ability to bring to life a historical period but does not quite seem to make the period as immediate as the present. His portrait of a period has more of the appearance of a brilliantly realized oil painting. It’s no less effective, perhaps, but it lacks the evocative power of cinematic realism. In one, the tableau moves; in the other, it glows with something of a romantic sheen.

   Carr doesn’t escape what might have become the conventions of the serial murder novel; in particular, the use of another murderer to shed some light on the mind of the subject of present investigation. As in Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs, the investigator visits the incarcerated “specialist.” This time, it’s one Jesse Pomerpy, described in a manner that has something of the gothic flavor of the Hannibal Lector descriptions: “Pomeroy was wearing a heavy set of shackles on his wrists, and an iron ‘collar cap’ rested on his shoulders and surrounded his head. This latter device , a grotesque punishment for particularly unruly prisoners, was a two-foot0high barred cage. Despite both the shackles and the collar cap, however, Jesse had book in his hand and was quietly reading.”

   The Alienist is in the fourth spot this week on the NY Times bestseller list. There are apparently a lot of readers whose “escape” reading is hardly an opening onto a panorama scarcely less horrific than the one depicted in the daily newspaper and on TV. Highly recommended, if you can stomach the graphic descriptions of mutilated bodies and irruptions of violence.

— Reprinted from Walter’s Place #102, August 1994 (very slightly revised).