I just started watching a new Anglo-Canadian television production set in the five boroughs of old New York in the 1880’s. The show “Copper” is gritty, showing the harsh differences between the wealthy and the poor during the era. While it is original and both well acted and written, it keep reminding me of a novel I’d read years ago about the same period.
The Alienist by Caleb Carr is a crime novel set in New York in 1896 and features a young Theodore Roosevelt who was then New York City’s police commissioner investigating a series of gruesome mutilation murders. The novel begins at Roosevelt’s wake when John Moore, a crime reporter for the New York Times has dinner with Laszlo Kreizler, a famous alienist and they begin to reminisce about the crime spree in the spring of 1896 that brought the three of them together. When the badly mutilated body of a young cross-dressing male prostitute is found in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Kreizler brings reporter Moore to the scene to ensure there will be no cover-up of the crime. They find Roosevelt already on the scene, and he connects this death to that of two children who were murdered and mutilated in a similar manner.
Despite a clean-up campaign, corruption on the police force is rampant; so Roosevelt starts up a covert investigation in a private location with Moore, Kriezler, a young female detective named Sara Howard and two Jewish brothers, Marcus and Lucius Isaacson who are open to new methods of detecting such a fingerprinting and psychological profiles. Kriezler, who works with those suffering from mental illness is called an Alienist for it was felt that the afflicted were “alienated” from society and from their true selves. As they hunt for the killer, they find themselves in danger for they become the killer’s new targets.
What really sets this novel apart is the graphic depiction of the life of the city during the era. The grandeur of the wealthy, the despair of the impoverished, the beauty of the art and the architecture and the filth of the streets and the river are all part of city of the period. It’s a book that will remain with you long after the last page is turned.