The Murder of the Century by Paul Collins

What better way to start 2017 than with a book blog about an entertaining piece of true crime that details a sensational murder that took place in New York in the summer of 1897, the same season and year that The Angel of Darkness was set—and indeed, that even inspired one of the fictional murders described in the novel. Described as “riveting” by The New York Times, this has been one of the most atmospheric pieces of true crime set in late 19th century New York that I have read to date. Provided one reads this work with both the strengths and weaknesses of this genre in mind (see below), I highly recommend this to readers of the Alienist books.

What’s it about?

A group of boys cooling off on a scorching summer afternoon in 1897 find a large parcel wrapped in oilcloth floating in the East River. Thinking they’ve made a fortunate find—it might be farm goods from Brooklyn—they eagerly unwrap the package, only to make a gruesome discovery: a headless human torso, arms still attached. The following day, a father taking his sons blueberry picking in the woods near Harlem also discovers a parcel wrapped in oilcloth. The contents of this one? The lower quadrant of a man, cut off at the thighs and waist. Meanwhile, a Long Island farmer’s ducks become sick after swimming in water turned red with blood.

The police investigating the find at the East River pier are convinced the perpetrators are medical students and make no further enquiries, even falsifying the patrolman’s report. It takes an exiled detective—one of Byrnes’ old men—to identify the grisly finds as a homicide case. However, as he starts to investigate the first few leads, he discovers that he is not the first to have made enquiries: enterprising reporters from the battling sensational newspapers of the Telegram, Herald, and World got there before him. The Murder of the Century documents the race to solve the crime and the sensational publicity circus surrounding the eventual trial, highlighting how the tabloid wars of the Gilded Age forever changed the face of newspaper journalism.

My thoughts

For years I’ve been looking for a piece of crime fiction as entertaining and evocative of late 19th century New York as the Alienist novels. The search has, by and large, been in vain. Although many attempts have been made, I have always felt that the Alienist books have been flagships in this genre that no others have quite lived up to. Given that The Murder of the Century is a work of nonfiction that I picked up simply to learn more about a real murder mentioned briefly in The Angel of Darkness, I little thought that I would find a contender here. You can therefore imagine my surprise when I started reading and found myself experiencing a similar feeling to what I’d felt back when I first picked up The Alienist.

Now, before I continue: a word of warning. The Murder of the Century belongs to a genre known as creative (or narrative) nonfiction. For anyone unfamiliar with this genre, it is nonfiction written in the style of fiction. The writing is compelling and dialogue is often included as full conversations. Even though works of this genre aim to create a factually accurate narrative, I acknowledge that this form of nonfiction has more pitfalls than any other. After all, if one is writing scenes from history as though they belong in a novel, does that not blur the line between fiction and nonfiction? However, provided that the research is thorough and the writer is careful—and that is certainly the case here where every source has been meticulously referenced—certain subjects do lend themselves to this genre. In this case, author Paul Collins notes:

The tremendous press coverage of this affair, with sometimes more than a dozen newspapers fielding reporters at once—not to mention the later memoirs of its participants—allowed me to draw on many eyewitness sources. All of the dialogue in quotation marks comes directly from conversations recorded in their accounts, and while I have freely edited out verbiage, not a word has been added.

Of course, this very strength potentially raises another issue. Specifically, given that this was the era of “yellow journalism”—and indeed, one of the purposes of this book is to highlight just how popular and competitive this new sensationalist reporting had become, often at the expense of facts—one may wonder just how accurate a work of narrative nonfiction primarily based off such coverage is likely to be. However, Paul Collins does his best to make sure readers are aware of the limitations of these sources, and has supplemented them with “court records and memoirs written by journalists and detectives from the case” as additional primary sources. My own feeling is that provided you approach a work like The Murder of the Century for what it is intended to be while keeping its strengths and limitations in mind, it can still be a thoroughly enjoyable way to gain more knowledge about a subject and time period that you might not otherwise obtain. I think of it in much the same way as TV and movie depictions of historical subject matter, such as HBO’s lauded John Adams adaptation from 2008. While the best of these adaptations attempt to portray their historical subject as accurately as possible, they are nonetheless a visual form of creative nonfiction.

In my own case, I feel that The Murder of the Century’s strength lies with its extremely atmospheric descriptions of New York in 1897. I suspect this is why it evoked the same sort of feeling I had originally experienced when reading The Alienist or The Angel of Darkness. We are there with the boys on the pier when they make their original gruesome discovery. A portrait of the grisly morgue at Bellevue is drawn for us as effectively as if we had been standing beside the slab on which the torso had been placed. And we spend a considerable period of time inside John Schuyler Moore’s world of journalism at the turn of the century. It is in this way that the book reads like the Alienist books, and is the primary reason that I recommend it to readers like myself who have tried, but failed, to find similarly atmospheric books set in New York in the late 19th century.

The other attraction for Alienist readers is the case The Murder of the Century focuses on. In Chapter 4 of The Angel of Darkness, Stevie and Cyrus collect the Isaacson brothers from a crime scene at Cunard pier. A group of boys who have been swimming to cool off found (you guessed it) a torso wrapped in oilcloth floating in the Hudson. While the case the Isaacsons are investigating is fictitious (it took place six days earlier, was found in the Hudson River rather than the East River, and the arms were removed from this torso), it was clearly inspired by the real case detailed in The Murder of the Century. In addition, one of the suspects in The Murder of the Century will likely be of interest to anyone who enjoyed The Angel of Darkness, as will the sensational trial described in the second half of the book; but to say more would give too much away.

So, if you are in the mood for a read that will take you back to the New York City described in the Alienist books, would like to learn more about John Schuyler Moore’s world of journalism in the late 19th century, or are at all curious to learn more about the real crime that inspired The Angel of Darkness’ fictitious torso case, The Murder of the Century might just be the book you’re looking for.

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Third And Fourth Alienist Novel Announced!

The Alienist 2006 EditionIn an exclusive with Entertainment Weekly, it was revealed this morning that Caleb Carr will be returning to the Alienist series. Mulholland Books have announced that they will be publishing two new Alienist novels that will act as ‘bookends’ for the two current novels in the series, The Alienist and The Angel of Darkness.

The first of the two new novels will be set 18 years after The Angel of Darkness, in New York City of 1915. Josh Kendall, VP, Executive Editor, and Editorial Director of Mulholland Books explained that this book, “set against a stage of rising nationalist violence and the early spy state,” is “centered on nativist violence and terrorism during America’s involvement in World War I.”

The second of the novels will take us back in time again, presumably to the late 1870s or early 1880s (assuming the events in the summary from the publisher’s press release matches the timeline already established in the series so far). In this novel, titled The Strange Case of Miss Sara X, “a youthful Kreizler, after finishing his psychology training at Harvard, falls under the spell of William James, has his first run-in with Roosevelt, and delves into the secret life of Sara Howard, heroine of the first books.”

For those of us who have wondered if there would ever be a third novel, official confirmation of two new Alienist novels is something to be excited about! However, the wait need not be arduous; we are also lucky enough to have Caleb Carr’s upcoming contemporary thriller Surrender, New York to look forward to! If you haven’t already done so, I recommend reading more about the novel and pre-order before its release on August 23.

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Following The Footsteps of Dr. Kreizler: A Travel Blog – Part Two

View Part One and Part Two of Following The Footsteps of Dr. Kreizler: A Travel Blog.

As regular visitors would be aware, I took a slightly different approach with the 17th Street blog last week by posting up an account of my recent Alienist-related travels that took me from Toronto, down through New York state following the Hudson River, before finally arriving on the Upper West Side of New York City. This week, I conclude my travel blog with an account of the second half of my holiday in New York, predominantly spent in the historic districts around Union Square where I was finally able to visit the locations that make up the heart of the Alienist novels. Enjoy!

The Inn At Irving Place

Following my short walk in Central Park with thunder rolling in the distance and storm clouds threatening, I moved from my hotel on the Upper West Side to my second hotel in the East 17th Street/Irving Place Historic District where I stayed for my final five nights in the city. When I had originally decided that I wanted to spend at least a portion of my trip down in the Union Square area, I looked at a number of different hotel options but ultimately couldn’t go past The Inn at Irving Place.

Ideally situated, the boutique hotel offered an experience I would not get anywhere else: an opportunity to get a taste of my favourite characters’ lifestyles by staying in a restored New York brownstone located only two blocks from Gramercy Park to the north, two blocks from Stuyvesant Square to the east, and one block from Union Square to the west. After checking in with the manager whose desk was located in the front parlor (see photos 3-4 below), I stayed in the “O Henry room” (see photos 6-12 below) which was tastefully appointed with genuine antiques and was well-proportioned, quiet, and had an unexpectedly large bathroom (for New York City). Located at the back of the brownstone on the second floor, the room had a pleasant view of the terrace and surrounding buildings (see photo 13 below). My regular breakfast spot in the tea room on the first floor also offered a delightful view, both inside and out (see photos 14-15 below).

All in all, I couldn’t have been happier with my choice of hotel and highly recommend it for any Alienist readers or lovers of history who want to experience life from an earlier time in a restored New York brownstone. Watch the steps, though — they are steep! (Something I experienced later on at the Merchant’s House Museum, too.)

Given the storm that had moved in, I decided to stay close to the hotel for the rest of the day by getting a spot of lunch at Barnes & Noble on Union Square before going for a wander across to a very wet Stuyvesant Square where I saw an astonishing number of squirrels — a novelty for this Australian, and the most I had seen in any one spot during my entire trip! — until I finally admitted defeat and retreated back to The Inn. I couldn’t help feeling on this first afternoon as I listened to the thunder overhead and saw the trees outside my window being blown around that I had been transported into the summer storm described in Chapter 53 of The Angel of Darkness which the characters quietly wait out in the safety of Dr. Kreizler’s home, watching the wind-tossed trees in Stuyvesant Square across the road. | Continue reading →

What do you think? Leave a comment!

Following The Footsteps of Dr. Kreizler: A Travel Blog – Part One

View Part One and Part Two of Following The Footsteps of Dr. Kreizler: A Travel Blog.

Coinciding with our author’s 60th birthday today (many happy returns, Mr. Carr!), I have something a little different to offer for 17th Street’s visitors this week. For the past three months, I have been away from my Australian home and hearth for work-related travel in Canada. Given my close proximity to New York during this trip, I decided to take the opportunity to add on two weeks of pleasure-related travel at the end of the trip for a holiday in New York City — my first ever visit to the city! The following two-part blog series documents the Alienist-related components of my travel. Although I have tried to focus these blogs on locations visited during the books, I have also included a few other historical attractions that might be of interest to readers of the Alienist books even though they are not directly relevant to the books. So, without further ado, I invite you to join me as I follow the footsteps of Dr. Kreizler and the rest of the team on my holiday in Canada and New York.

The Bata Shoe Museum

The first attraction that I want to document might be the only one not located in New York state, but it is also the only one that quite literally involves following the footsteps of Dr. Kreizler — or, at least, Sara Howard. Those of you who have ever visited the History section of 17th Street will know that I have long adored historical clothing, particularly 19th century clothing, so you can imagine my excitement when I saw, on my final day in Toronto, that the Bata Shoe Museum was featuring an exhibition (until June of 2016) on “the pleasures and perils of dress in the 19th century.” The “Fashion Victims” exhibition showcases the Bata Shoe Museum’s collection of 19th century footwear along with a smaller but no less stunning array of matching dresses and under garments, including a pair of the Empress Elisabeth of Austria’s impossibly narrow shoes and gloves, and a beautiful but deadly Emerald green ball gown containing arsenic.

Although the exhibition featured footwear and clothing from as early as 1820, the photos I have shown here are a small selection of my favourite footwear exhibited from the late 19th century, not unlike those Sara would have kept in her wardrobe for more formal occasions; she presumably would have also kept a wide selection of more practical footwear for her day to day and sporting activities — not to mention the nail-studded climber’s boots we see her don in Chapter 2 of The Angel of Darkness. From left to right, the photos shown below include: a pair of elegant embroidered boots created by the firm of the most famous French shoe manufacturer of the late 19th century, Jean-Louis Francois Pinet, from approximately 1885; a pair of calf-hugging handmade, bespoke Swedish or German boots designed to look like a stockinged leg from the 1890s; a pair of button boots made with brocaded fabric (an alternative to the embroidery seen on the other boots in these photos) from the 1870s; a mass-produced boot made by the Parisian shoe manufacturer L. P. Perchellet with its original shoe box from 1875; and a stunning embroidered boot also created by Jean-Louis Francois Pinet from the 1880s.

In addition to the Fashion Victims exhibition (worth the price of admission alone), while I was there the museum also featured exhibitions of footwear through the ages, “the curious history of men in heels,” footwear of famous individuals donated to the museum, and something that probably would have been of great interest to Franz Boas and Clark Wissler: an exhibition of native North American footwear. As enjoyable as those exhibitions all were, as they weren’t relevant to the Alienist books I haven’t included any photos here. However, if you happen to be in Toronto at any stage in the future and have an interest in historical clothing, I can highly recommend that you allocate half a day to visit the museum. It was, without question, one of the highlights of my three month trip.

A Journey Down The Hudson River

After departing Toronto, I travelled by train down to Niagara Falls where I spent a day and night (an amazing experience that I would highly recommend if you ever get the chance) before embarking on a nine hour rail journey via Amtrak’s Empire Line down through New York state to New York City. While the first half of the journey took us through several hours worth of pretty if somewhat unremarkable farming scenery along with the occasional (mostly industrial) view of cities like Buffalo and Syracuse, the second half of the journey — from Albany onwards — saw the train snake alongside the Hudson River until we reached New York City, and this was unquestionably another of the highlights of my trip. I had been utterly unprepared for the size and beauty of the Hudson and mountains that lay beyond, bringing to mind my all-time favourite quote from either of the two Alienist books, spoken by the ever insightful Stevie Taggert.

The Angel of Darkness, Chapter 13:

“But it wasn’t any attempt at being rational that finally mended my spirits; no, it was the sight of the river itself, which always made me feel, somehow, like there was hope. She has that quality, does the Hudson, as I imagine all great rivers do: the deep, abiding sense that those activities what take place on shore among human beings are of the moment, passing, and aren’t the stories by way of which the greater tale of this planet will, in the end, be told…”

Nevertheless, those of you who have read The Angel of Darkness will know that the majestic Hudson River plays far bigger role in the novel than the scene in which Stevie makes that observation. Indeed, during The Angel of Darkness the team are are drawn from their usual haunts around Manhattan to the small town of Ballston Spa in upstate New York where they stay for at least half the novel; and to get to Ballston Spa, Dr. Kreizler decides to travel up the Hudson River on a steamer, the Mary Powell, as far as Troy (a town near Albany), before taking the train to their final destination. On this scenic interlude in the novel, the book’s narrator, Stevie Taggert, spends a considerable portion of his time smoking on the promenade deck with various other characters, first taking in the beauty of the Palisades and then at the “manor houses of the old Dutch and English river families” that dotted the hillsides further upstream. However, for Stevie, as for me, it was the untamed beauty of the Catskills and other mountains on the route that struck most profoundly. | Continue reading →

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