The Alienist by Caleb Carr is a classic whydunit.

This superb novel offers up abundant pleasures.

  • Your jaw will drop at the staggering number and variety of dishes at a seemingly endless midnight dinner at Delmonico’s Restaurant, all too typical of the nonstop banquets of the era.
  • You’ll frown with pity, or disbelief, at the mindless brutality of the guards at Sing-Sing Prison and the subhuman living conditions in the tenements of the Lower East Side.
  • You’ll marvel at the antics of the five hyperactive children of Theodore Roosevelt when you visit his home.
  • And, if you’re of an intellectual disposition, you’ll be fascinated at the ongoing debate among the leading psychologists and neurologists of the day about the nature of consciousness and the existence of free will.

In short, Caleb Carr’s now-classic thriller, The Alienist, presents a detailed snapshot of New York City shortly before the turn of the twentieth century, a time when American society was predominantly misogynist, racist, anti-immigrant, homophobic, and corrupt. Even if you’ve had your fill of tales about serial killers you’ll enjoy this classic whydunit as historical fiction.

The Alienist by Caleb Carr (1994) 608 pages ★★★★☆

Theodore Roosevelt plays an important role in The Alienist just months before he was to be named Assistant Secretary of the Navy by William McKinley, whose running mate he became four years later. He had served in the New York State Assembly, where he caused a ruckus, and on the Civil Service Commission in Washington, DC, a job in which he also made more enemies than friends. In 1896, he served as President of the New York City Board of Police Commissioners under a reform Mayor. Carr expertly portrays the enormous political pressures on Roosevelt as he attempted to introduce honesty and modern police methods to a notoriously corrupt and inept force.

How the author came to write this “classic whydunit”

In a fascinating Afterword to the New Edition, Carr reveals the hilarious story of how he came to write the novel. “In the early 1990s,” he writes, “I was a military and diplomatic historian whose ideas on both subjects were too extreme to guarantee regular employment. My last two books . . . had received good reviews, but said reviews had not translated into appreciable sales.” So he began to think about writing fiction—presumably, a novel that would sell better than his previous work. At length he settled on the central ideas of The Alienist. But fearing that his agent and editor wouldn’t allow him to write fiction, Carr framed his proposal as history. Only once they had expressed interest did he reveal that the story was, in reality, fictional. Fortunately, both his gatekeepers saw the virtue in his proposal. A classic was born, and Carr himself calls it a whydunit.

Carr explains that he was little interested in writing a traditional murder mystery. He wanted, instead, to write a “whydunit.” His greatest interest, in fact, was to explore the psyche of the two men at the center of his tale: Laszlo Kreitzler, the “alienist” or psychiatrist, and the serial killer whose identity isn’t ascertained until well into the book. And he decided to “set the tale not in the present but at that point in American history when psychology first evolved far enough from its parent discipline, philosophy, to stand on its own and address dynamic (that is, conscious and voluntary) patterns of human behavior.” This choice allowed Carr to immerse Kreitzler, his protagonist, in the ongoing scientific debate involving William James, Sigmund Freud, Josef Breuer, and Richard von Krafft-Ebing, among other late-nineteenth-century psychologists and neurologists.

The Alienist was the first of three books in Caleb Carr‘s Laszlo Kreitzler series. He has written four other novels and three books of nonfiction. By profession, Carr is a military historian. He has taught the subject at Bard College and elsewhere.

This is one of several books about Famous people as detectives in fact and fiction.

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