Included below is The Alienist summary as well as selected critical reception. For a timeline and complete series of events of The Alienist, or to test your knowledge about The Alienist’s story and characters in a quiz, please use the side menu.
The Alienist Summary
The year is 1896. The place, New York City. On a cold March night, New York Times reporter John Schuyler Moore is summoned to the East River by his friend and former Harvard classmate Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, a psychologist, or “alienist.” On the unfinished Williamsburg Bridge, they view the horribly mutilated body of an adolescent boy, a prostitute from one of Manhattan’s infamous brothels.
The newly appointed police commissioner, Theodore Roosevelt, in a highly unorthodox move, enlists the two men in the murder investigation, counting on the reserved Kreizler’s intellect and Moore’s knowledge of New York’s vast criminal underworld. They are joined by Sara Howard, a brave and determined woman who works as a secretary in the police department. Laboring in secret (for alienists, and the emerging discipline of psychology, are viewed by the public with skepticism at best), the unlikely team embarks on what is a revolutionary effort in criminology; amassing a psychological profile of the man they’re looking for based on the details of his crimes. Their dangerous quest takes them into the tortured past and twisted mind of a murderer who has killed before; and will kill again before the hunt is over.
Fast-paced and gripping, infused with a historian’s exactitude, The Alienist conjures up the Gilded Age and its untarnished underside: verminous tenements and opulent mansions, corrupt cops and flamboyant gangsters, shining opera houses and seamy gin mills. Here is a New York during an age when questioning society’s belief that all killers are born, not made, could have unexpected and mortal consequences.
The Alienist Critical Reception
You can practically hear the clip-clop of horses’ hooves echoing down old Broadway in Caleb Carr’s richly atmospheric new crime thriller, The Alienist, set in 19th-century New York City. You can taste the good food at Delmonico’s. You can smell the fear in the air…
Mr. Carr has lovingly evoked not only a physical sense of old New York but the spirit of the time as well, when the powers in charge were worried about unrest among the masses of cheap immigrant labor.
The Washington Post:
[A] delicious premise… Its settings and characterizations are much more sophisticated than the run-of-the-mill thrillers that line the shelves in bookstores.
The Detroit News:
Caleb Carr’s rich period thriller takes us back to the moment in history when the modern idea of the serial killer became available to us… [and] tracks the efforts of a team of farsighted investigators working frantically to solve a string to hideous murders… Absorbing… suspenseful… gratifying.
Remarkable… The reader is taken on a whirlwind tour of the Gilded Age metropolis, climbing up tenement stairs, scrambling across rooftops, and witnessing midnight autopsies… A breathtaking, finely crafted mystery.
The method of the hunt and the disparate team of hunters lift the tale beyond the level of a good thriller — way beyond… A remarkable combination of historical novel and psychological thriller.