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THE ALIENIST by Caleb Carr


by Caleb Carr

Pub Date: April 1st, 1994
ISBN: 0-679-41779-6
Publisher: Random House

Novelist/historian Carr (The Devil's Soldier, 1991, etc.) combines his two preferred modes with a meaty, if overslung, serial- killer quest set in 1896 New York. A series of gruesome murders and mutilations of heartrendingly young prostitutes—boys dressed as girls—reunites three alumni of William James' pioneering Harvard psychology lectures: Times reporter John Schuyler Moore, eminent psychologist Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (called, after the fashion of the time, an ``alienist''), and New York Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt. Despite Moore's skepticism about Roosevelt's plan to put Kreizler on the case (``You'd be better off hiring an African witch doctor,'' he says about his old friend), Kreizler steadily compiles a profile of the killer based on a combination of forensic and psychological evidence. The man they're looking for is over six feet tall; about 30 years old; an expert mountaineer; either a priest or a man from a strongly religious background; a veteran of some time among Indians. As Moore tours Manhattan's nastiest nightspots and Kreizler's net closes around a suspect, Carr fills out his narrative with obligatory cameos by Lincoln Steffens, Jacob Riis, J.P. Morgan, Anthony Comstock, and Franz Boas, and didactic digressions on the rise of Bertillon measurements, fingerprints, the Census Bureau, and gourmet dining (courtesy of Delmonico's) in America. The result is somehow gripping yet lifeless, as evocative period detail jostles with a cast of characters who are, for the most part, as pallid as the murder victims. Still, it must be said that the motivation of the demented killer is worked out with chilling, pitying conviction. Unremarkable as a genre thriller, then, but highly satisfactory as fictionalized social history. (Film rights to Paramount; Literary Guild Alternate Selection)