Welcome to 17th Street

Welcome to 17th Street, a website dedicated to Caleb Carr and the Alienist books. It features the latest Caleb Carr news, a full author biography and interview list, book summaries and timelines for The Alienist and The Angel of Darkness along with synopses Caleb Carr's other work, analyses of the characters from the Alienist books, and information on the real history behind the Alienist books. Navigation for this site is at the top, showing the different sections of the site. Relevant links within the section (if applicable) will show up in the left column.

News & Blog

The Alienist by Caleb Carr – Part One

View Part One of The Alienist book blog series.

The AlienistAs the 20th anniversary year of The Alienist‘s publication draws to a close, I have decided to honor the occasion one final time with a special multi-part book blog series. Regular visitors to 17th Street will already be aware that I have spent much of 2014 discussing the various works of fiction and non-fiction Caleb Carr cited as inspirations for The Alienist on the 17th Street book blog (see my discussions of The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett and How The Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis as examples). However, despite having run 17th Street for nearly nine years now, it recently occurred to me that I have never shared any of my personal views about the book that started it all: The Alienist.

In truth, my failure to share my personal views about either of the Alienist books on 17th Street was largely by design. As I see reading as a deeply personal experience, my original goal with 17th Street was simply to provide a comprehensive resource for interested readers that would serve to enhance the reading experience with maps of book locations, timelines of key plot events, character lists, character analyses, and historical information rather than influencing the reading experience with subjective opinion pieces. However, having now spent the past year sharing my personal views on the various works that influenced The Alienist, I think the time has come for me to finally share my subjective—sometimes controversial—opinions about the book itself.

The following series therefore pays homage to a book that touched me more powerfully than any other had done at the time I read it over ten years ago, and that continues to inspire me to this day. Whether you are a first-time reader of The Alienist or are returning for a re-read, I hope you find the following series helpful, and will take the time to look a little more deeply in order to see the book as more than just a gripping psychological thriller or enticing piece of historical fiction; rather, that you will see it as the superbly constructed piece of social commentary that it is—a piece of social commentary that is not just about society of 120 years ago, but about our society, too.

“You can practically hear the clip-clop of horses’ hooves echoing down old Broadway…”

The New York Times opened their 1994 review of The Alienist with the preceding statement, and there is no better way to introduce what is, at the most basic level, a historical thriller of the first order. As I noted in one of my posts replying to the NY Public Library’s discussion of The Alienist in late 2013, Mr. Carr is a historian first and foremost, and it shows in the way he captured not only 1890s New York City and everything that entails, but also the history of psychology and psychiatry, forensic science, and even literature as well.

Speaking as an experimental psychologist with a keen interest in my own field’s history, I can attest that the accuracy and skill with which Mr. Carr incorporated the history of psychology and psychiatry into the text was nothing short of superb. Even though none of the characters had more knowledge than they would have had in 1896, a realistic psychological profile was able to be constructed (quite a feat!) by a psychiatrist, Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, who was in no way anachronistic, as Mr. Carr explained in his 2013 New York Times web chat in answer to a question I asked about the real psychological figures who contributed to Dr. Kreizler’s character and professional opinions:

Laszlo Kreizler was based in part on Dr. [Adolf] Meyer, very definitely, but he was equally based on William James, and the combination is important: Meyer, while he was forward-thinking in most respects, tended to be very medical in his outlook, and very concerned with subjects that medicine could directly address. James, on the other hand, though a doctor, had transcended medicine, and was willing to look toward any solution that might throw light on a particular problem, or that might throw light on life in general. I like to think that Kreizler, for all his seeming rigidity about certain things, was a philosopher as much as he was a medical man, and hence the combination. There were other influences on his character, of course, and he basically sheds light on them in the first big examination scene at 808 Broadway, where the note to Mrs. Santorelli is examined. No influence was too outlandish (as in the case of Krafft-Ebing) or too incompletely formed (as in the case of Freud) for him to consider, whereas both of those men were dismissed out of hand by most of the medical establishment. In short, Kreizler was as much a psychologist as a psychiatrist, and perhaps more his own breed of philosopher above all.

Beyond the history of psychology and psychiatry, the novel also provides an interesting glimpse into the history of forensic science. Thanks to the inclusion of the forward-thinking Detective Sergeants Marcus and Lucius Isaacson, the investigative team is able to employ forensic techniques that were only emerging at the turn of the last century, including dactyloscopy (fingerprint identification), anthropometry, and handwriting analysis. However, in case it seems a little too prescient of the Detective Sergeants to only use techniques that time would establish had sound scientific basis, we also see Marcus try his hand at optography, an intriguing technique that was ultimately doomed to failure. Involving the attempted retrieval of an optogram, an image on the retina of the eye, optography was based on the popular nineteenth century idea that the retina records the last image it sees at death. | Continue reading →

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Columbia Spectator Reports on Treasures of New York

Caleb Carr on Treasures of New YorkWLIW21 premiered the Columbia University episode of Treasures of New York on Sunday night, exploring the 260-year history of the New York institution. Caleb Carr was included among the guests on the episode, and was interviewed about the role Columbia played in the formation of the Beat Generation in the 1950s. The Columbia Spectator has since reported on the making of the episode, with production assistant Sarah MacEachron revealing some behind the scenes details in which Mr. Carr is mentioned:

As part of the production process, MacEachron conducted an interview with Caleb Carr, the son of Lucien Carr, a former Columbia student and a Beat Generation writer who murdered David Kammerer in Riverside Park in 1944.

“I ended up getting in touch with him [Carr], and so we drove to upstate New York and met him in this very cool house where Ginsberg and Kerouac all used to hang out,” MacEachron said.

In the episode, we see Mr. Carr using a typewriter that presumably belonged to one of the Beats, and he discusses the Kammerer murder that took place while his father, Lucien Carr, was still a student at Columbia.

The episode can now be streamed online via the Treasures of New York website.

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Caleb Carr to appear on Treasures of New York

Columbia UniversityBroadway World recently reported that Caleb Carr will be one of the notable figures appearing on this month’s upcoming Columbia University episode of Treasures of New York, a documentary series that explores New York City’s most important cultural landmarks and institutions. Other notable figures featured on the Columbia University episode are reported to include: “Columbia President Lee Bollinger, actress Amanda Peet, architect Renzo Piano, Nobel Prize winner Eric Kandel, Oscar-nominee and Columbia University professor Jamal Joseph, and the 5th Great Grandson of Alexander Hamilton, Doug Hamilton.”

An extended preview of the episode can currently be viewed on THIRTEEN’s website. Keep a close watch around the 37 second mark for what appears to be a glimpse of our author!

The Columbia University episode of Treasures of New York will premiere on Sunday, September 21 at 7pm EDT on WLIW21, and will re-air on Monday, September 22nd at 9pm EDT on THIRTEEN. Following the premiere, the full episode will be streamed online via THIRTEEN’s website.

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The Legendary Panthers of Davon Wood – Part Two

View Part One and Part Two of The Legendary Panthers of Davon Wood series.

We took a short break from the Alienist books two weeks ago to recognise our author’s birthday with the first half of a special investigative history blog examining the truth behind the legendary panthers of Davon Wood who feature in The Legend of Broken, Mr. Carr’s 2012 epic set in Northern Germany during the Dark Ages. We discovered in Part One that the impressive proportions of “Davon panthers”–that is, nine-foot bodies from nose to tail base and weights of over 500lbs (226kg)–ruled out the possibility of the great cats having been relatives of either the European (or Eurasian) jaguar (Panthera gombaszoegensis) or the ancestors of modern African lions (Panthera leo), and instead favoured the hypothesis that Davon panthers would more likely have been relatives of the equally impressive European (or Eurasian) cave lion (Panthera spelaea spelaea)1, a Pleistocene felid species capable of reaching weights of up to 617lbs (280kg).

Having established that the lengths and weights of the Davon panther fall into the same ranges as those of the European cave lion, we open Part Two with the more intriguing question of lifestyle: do the hunting styles, prey choices, and environmental preferences of Davon panthers also support the European cave lion hypothesis? We will be reviewing fascinating research into mitochondrial DNA and bone collagen isotopic signatures to answer this question, as well as investigating possible extinction hypotheses for the European cave lion and the implications these have for the likelihood of Davon panthers having really survived through to the Dark Ages.

Lone cats, not lone wolves.

chauvet-cave-lion-paintingWe are told in The Legend of Broken that Davon panthers were solitary hunters, a characteristic of their species that might initially appear to be at odds with the hypothesis that these legendary cats were relatives of the European cave lion. Until recently, the European cave lion was assumed to hunt cooperatively in a large pride structure like the modern lion. Palaeolithic cave paintings such as the panel found in the Chauvet Cave in Ardèche, France, which depicts a large number of cave lions in close proximity to one of their proposed prey species, the bison, has been taken as evidence in support of this assumption (Bocherens et al., 2011). Moreover, the assumed diet of the cave lion, which includes large ungulate prey such as horse, bison, reindeer, and woolly rhinoceros, along with juvenile members of megaherbivore species such as mammoth, has been modelled on the diet of the modern lion, a species that relies on cooperative hunting methods to bring down the large adult ungulates (zebra and antelope) that form the foundation of their diet, and will even prey on the modern equivalents of megaherbivores–juvenile weaned elephants–when prides are large enough (i.e., up to 30 members) to support the collective hunting required to feasibly target such large prey (Bocherens et al., 2011). However, two mitochondrial DNA studies (Burger et al., 2004; Barnett et al., 2009) and two bone collagen isotopic signature studies (Bocherens et al., 2011; Yeakel et al., 2013) have recently called into question the assumption that European cave lions shared behavioural traits such as collective hunting with the modern lion.

american-lionDuring the Pleistocene, felids that resemble the modern lion covered territories from Africa and Europe, through Asia, and into North America. Mitochondrial DNA research carried out on fossil specimens now clearly demonstrates that the European cave lion, the American lion, and the modern lion should be viewed as three distinct species. Specifically, Burger et al. (2004) and Barnett et al. (2009) have both shown that although the American lion (Panthera atrox, see left) and the European cave lion (Panthera spelaea) shared common ancestors approximately 200,000 years ago, both species were “genetically isolated” from the ancestors of modern lions and did not contribute mitochondrial DNA to the modern lion population. This is supported by the additional interesting finding that there were several points of cross-contact between the three species at various stages of the Pleistocene–one area of cross-contact for American lions and European cave lions was located between the Yukon/Alaska and Southern Canada, while another area of extended cross-contact for the ancestors of modern lions and European cave lions was located the Near East–and yet no inter-breeding appears to have taken place, indicating that the American lion, the European cave lion, and the ancestors of modern lions were, indeed, three distinct felid species (Barnett et al., 2009). In addition to shedding further light on felid taxonomy during the Pleistocene, this important finding also brings into question the assumption that European cave lions and American lions shared the collective hunting behaviour of modern lions, a unique trait that is not observed in any other modern Panthera species.

An independent line of enquiry utilising bone collagen isotopic signatures has recently provided more direct evidence for the hunting behaviour of European cave lions and competing predator species throughout Europe during the Pleistocene. Because the ratios of stable nitrogen and carbon isotopes for prey species are recorded in the tissues of predators, Pleistocene predator-prey networks have been able to be reconstructed using bone collagen isotopic signatures to a degree of accuracy that has even allowed the proportional contributions of specific prey species in the diets of different predators to be determined (Yeakel et al., 2013). The first comprehensive study of European cave lion prey choices was conducted by Bocherens et al. (2011) using the fossilised remains of various predator species and their potential prey species from 25 sites around Belgium, Germany, France, and Switzerland that were dated as falling into one of two time periods: before the Last Glacial Maximum (pre-LGM: i.e., approx. 24,000 to 40,000 years ago), and after the Last Glacial Maximum (post-LGM: i.e., approx. 12,000 to 14,000 years ago). Interestingly, the cave lions showed a wide scattering of isotopic values, suggesting that different individuals were preying on species with contrasting isotopic signatures, a finding that the authors argue strongly supports the hypothesis that cave lions were solitary hunters with individual prey preferences rather than hunting collectively in prides (Bocherens et al., 2011). | Continue reading →

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