At first glance, Caleb Carr’s The Alienist looks a lot like a New York version of Sherlock Holmes. The main action takes place in the 1890s (1896, specifically). There’s a Watson-like first-person narrator (John Moore, a reporter for The New York Times). And the protagonist (Dr. Laszlo Kreizler) is a brilliant—if troubled—mind with unconventional investigative methods.
But the setting isn’t the only difference. For starters, it’s not Kreizler that’s the degenerate (as Holmes was in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s tales); it’s Moore. He drinks and gambles, which makes him a more colorful narrator than the upright Watson. I also appreciated that Carr’s female lead (Sara Howard) has an active role in the investigation. Most intriguing, though, is that Kreizler is an alienist. “Prior to the twentieth century,” Carr notes at the book’s beginning, “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.”
In the 19th century, the field of psychology was still in its infancy, and Kreizler’s contention that childhood experiences shape adulthood is generally regarded with extreme skepticism. “If word gets out that you’ve brought someone like Kreizler in,” Moore says at one point, “why, you’d be better off hiring an African witch doctor!” But when a killer begins executing child prostitutes in horrific fashion, Teddy Roosevelt—at that time the commissioner of the New York Police Department—involves Kreizler anyway and asks him to covertly profile the murderer. Most of the novel focuses on this endeavor, following Kreizler and his team as they research and theorize their way to a picture of their quarry. The process requires more guesswork than I remember Holmes engaging in (although to be fair, I haven’t read one of his cases in over twenty years). Kreizler’s colleagues analyze each clue for meaning and fill a chalkboard with possible interpretations. Many of their ideas are reaches. “It’s just speculation,” John starts at one point. “John,” Sara interrupts. “That entire board is just speculation.” I found this frustrating at times—Holmes’ rapid (and unlikely!) deductions based on observing and connecting seemingly irrelevant details are often more fun. But the grinding nature of Kreizler’s methods feels more realistic.
I also respected the historical touches. Carr has Moore write his account of the investigation from a vantage of twenty years, enough time for him to plausibly slip in details that wouldn’t fit in a contemporary account. I learned all sorts of things about turn-of-the-century New York. Much of it wasn’t strictly relevant to the story. And some bits, like the political interference Kreizler faces as he gets closer to the truth, seemed forced. But the majority was extremely well done.
The same is true of The Alienist as a whole, making it a worthy successor to—and no mere retread of—Conan Doyle’s iconic works.