"An ungodly pummeling on the door of my grandmother's house at 19 Washington Square North brought first the maid and then my grandmother herself to the doorways of their bedrooms at two o'clock on the morning of March 3, 1896."
The gruesome case at the heart of Caleb Carr's The Alienist begins at this ungodly hour in an ungodly time of New York City's history, the turn of the 20th century, that brutal period when Teddy Roosevelt served as New York City Police Commissioner. This is a city enduring the clash of extreme wealth and absolute poverty, mixed with the corruption of the late-19th century NYPD. It's a city that sees the gastronomic delights of Delmonico's heyday as well as the seedier thrills of brothels catering to rich and poor, conventional and unorthodox tastes. It is a heady stew and a ripe environment for birthing an abomination unseen in New York City at the time: the modern serial killer.
New types of crime demand new types of investigators. From the book's note—"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."
John Moore is summoned to the scene of a gruesome crime that will eventually involve his friend, Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, the titular alienist. The novel is a murder mystery and a dive into many of the period details that gave New York its peculiar character in the 1890s. Readers will encounter historical personages such as muckraking journalists Lincoln Steffens and Jacob Riis, gangs descended from the infamous Bowery Boys, and the august Roosevelt himself in his prime. This is a city not far removed from the Civil War and its accompanying draft riots, one on the cusp of the boom leading to the Roaring Twenties.
Carr's attention to historical detail is impressive, even including popular brand names of the time such as John Moore's preferred toothpaste, Sozodont. There are references to many vanished parts of New York City, including the old Croton Reservoir before it's demolition. Our flagship building sits on that site now and parts of the original reservoir can still be seen around the South Court.
In the coming weeks we will discuss this attention to detail as well as the historical circumstances surrounding Kreizler's investigation. Here is the reading schedule*:
- Week One: Introduction
- Week Two: Part I
- Week Three: Part II
- Week Four: Part III
*I read this on a Nook and ebook page count tend to differ from physical page counts, so I will only list the book's parts in the schedule, not the page numbers.