I know Carr did not invent historical fiction but he sure kicked off the genre's popularity in 1994 with The Alienist. When I first read the book I remember feeling as if I was making my way through New York City's cold and dangerous 1896 streets. The two main characters are New York Times reporter John Schuyler and his friend Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, a psychologist, or "alienist." Together they investigate the grisly murder of a boy prostitute. And yes, it is shades of Holmes and Watson. Laszlo spouts many Holmesian observations, “you cannot objectify the subjective, you cannot generalize the specific.”
Soon joining the team is police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt and Sara Howard a secretary in the police department. Carr is stacking the deck against them given a reporter, a woman and an Alienist would not garner much respect in the seedy underworld. Together they investigate and build a psychological profile of the killer, “... belief that the answers one gives to life's crucial questions are never truly spontaneous; they are the embodiment of years of contextual experience, of the building of patterns in each of our lives that eventually grow to dominate our behavior.”
Though the plot is solid it is secondary to the characters, the use of real world people, the fast pace, and most importantly, the atmosphere. New York City is its own character providing not only a rich backdrop but a living and breathing entity. In my recent read of the book all of this stood up. I am amazed it was never made into a movie but fans should know that a television series in the works.
What a fascinating read. The atmosphere of the end of the century and the poverty and high life can almost be felt. Utilising known historical characters gives another element to this story. Both raw and confronting and also with a mixture of drawing on the new frontier of psychology is fascinating and intriguing. Mr Carr’s characters have a life of their own