The advertisement for this book was shocking enough, a bunch of boy prostitutes turn up dead in Old New York, then Teddy Roosevelt enters the case, along with a criminal profiling psychologist named Kreizler. Couple that with the sleaze and vice of the era, and you know it’s going to be disturbing. The book’s famous cover, with the lone cloaked figure walking in the snow, makes things look eerie. Who is he, I wonder, and why does he appear so confident? When I first saw this book I got a feeling that this would be New York’s Jack-The-Ripper, and I was right. As for the term “alienist,” that’s what psychologists were called in those days. Even the title sounds creepy.
Caleb Carr weaves a creepy historical thriller set in turn-of-the-century Manhattan. In a creative turn of revisionism, Carr makes Gilded Age New York look like a three-ring circus with a lot of creepy sideshows. Young girls and boys are lured into prostitution, all of them are addicted to morphine, and the police are corrupt. An alcoholic gambling reporter gets an invite from Teddy Roosevelt (his Harvard classmate) and a Hungarian-born psychologist (also a former classmate) to catch a serial killer. The victims aren’t the kind of people anybody would miss; they’re all boy prostitutes from immigrant families, turning up dead near the river, and the families make little effort to know their whereabouts. The only reason that Roosevelt wants to stop the killer is that the media may soon catch on, and as Police Commissioner, the bad publicity would ruin his career. There are others who want to avoid bad publicity, but their way involves squashing the story.
Carr inserts plenty of historical characters in here, making most of them look bad. Anthony Comstock appears in all his evil glory, along with evil Archbishops and a patronizing racist photographer named Jacob Riis. My apologies to those of you who put him on a pedestal, but I loved Carr’s portrayal of the guy. He makes the famous “social reformer” look like a nasty, stuck up, racist prima donna, who has his own preconceived ideas about how people should all behave. Roosevelt isn’t made out to be such a great guy either; he’s portrayed as a pompous blowhard, and a bit of a bully too. The funniest characters are the Isaacson Brothers, fat Jewish intellectuals who Roosevelt has brought in to be detectives. Though they’re totally unsuited for police work, they do have amazing detection skills.
In the past decade, we’ve had so much nostalgia for the old New York. Old movies that portray the 1970’s grit and sleaze are more popular than ever, and people reminisce about the old East Village punk rock scene. What people often ignore is that New York City was always rough and dirty, even in the 1890’s. When I read this book, I really got a sense of being in a creepy, dark place, where the street lights are dim and trouble lurks behind every corner.
The Alienist was published way back in the 1990’s, and still read today. I read it in 1999, back when I was living in the city in my first apartment, before New York nostalgia was all the rage. Unlike today, you didn’t have all the amateur historians with their blogs about Old New York, so the information on the city’s past life was limited to the few books here and there, and they all got the facts different. This book was like a murder mystery, horror movie, and museum display all rolled into one.