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Literature / The Alienist

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The Alienist, written by Caleb Carr, is a 1994 novel which features the story of the search for a serial killer in New York City in 1896. The killer is targeting a very specific, marginalized segment of the population. An investigative team is brought together to find the killer. The members of team include: a 19th-century psychologist, and by extension his household employees, a journalist, who is also the narrator, two detectives from the NYPD, and the first woman to be employed by the NYPD. The novel follows their investigation into the mind of a killer.
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A second book by Carr, The Angel of Darkness (1997), follows the team as they search for another serial killer. Cable network TNT has based a television series on the novels: season 1 (based on the first novel) premiered on TNT on January 22, 2018, and season 2 (based on the second) is scheduled to premiere on July 26, 2020.


This novel provides examples of:

  • Action Girl: Sara Howard.
  • Big Applesauce: Most of the novel takes place in New York City.
  • Call-Forward: At the end of the affair, Teddy Roosevelt considers getting involved in national politics. Why, how preposterous!
  • Character Focus: The members of the investigative team split off either individually or in pairs to gather the information they need to find the killer.
  • Child by Rape: The killer was the result of marital rape.
  • Darkest Hour: Dr. Kreitzler leaves the team after the attack at his home. This almost derails the investigation.
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  • Dirty Cop: The police department is portrayed as a hotbed of corruption before Roosevelt's time, as it indeed was. Most of the non-corrupt cops are brought in by TR for the express purpose of cleaning up.
  • Everybody Smokes/Smoking Is Cool: A given, during the time the story was set. Even eleven-year-old Stevie lights up every other page.
  • Everyone Meets Everyone: At Delmonico's, no less.
  • Five-Token Band: The group trying to solve the murders includes a Central-European psychoanalyst, a woman who works for the NYPD, a black coachman, and two Jewish detectives.
  • Harmful to Minors: Very harmful to some minors.
  • The Heart: Mary Palmer. Oh oh oh, Mary Palmer.
  • Historical Domain Characters: Theodore Roosevelt and J.P. Morgan, for starters. Franz Boas also makes a cameo.
  • Heroic BSoD: Kreizler suffers this after Mary dies.
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  • Ignored Expert: Dr. Laslow Kreitzler.
  • Injun Country: This is a significant idea that runs throughout the entire story.
  • Innocence Lost: For so many people in so many ways.
  • Jews Love to Argue: A Running Gag with the Isaacson brothers in both novels.
  • Locked Room Mystery: One of the "girls" disappears out of a third-story room with no fire escape.
  • Manipulative Bitch: Libby Hatch
  • Mr. Exposition: John Schuyler Moore.
  • My Country, Right or Wrong: At the end of The Angel of Darkness, a Spanish diplomat admits to covering up the kidnapping of his own daughter, desperate not to give his government any pretext for starting the war with the United States that he and many other moderates are trying so hard to prevent. Sara challenges that if a man has been taught to value his country over his own child, that country is already beyond saving. He has no ready answer to that.
  • No Name Given: John's grandmother ( who he lives with) and his younger brother who had drowned several years earlier are never referred to by name.
  • Offing the Offspring: Libby Hatch is revealed to have murdered several of her children (one of them survived but not for lack of trying on her part).
  • Pater Familicide: Some patients that Kreitzler sees early in the investigation fit this profile.
  • Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: A 19th-century psychologist, a drunk, the first woman to work for the NYPD, an 11-year-old ex-con, a gentle giant ex-con, two Jewish brothers who are cutting-edge detectives, and sometimes Theodore Roosevelt. Yup, ragtag.
  • Rape as Backstory: Mary chained her father to his bed and burned him alive, because he'd been sexually molesting her since she was a very small child. Since she suffered from a disorder that kept her from being able to speak in coherent sentences, she couldn't tell anyone about it.
    • Japeth Dury/John Beechman is revealed to have been attacked by a family friend. It is implied to have been one of the causes of his murder spree.
  • Scary Black Man: Cyrus. Subverted in that he's really a gentle man by nature, even if he's a convicted murderer. (He killed a man in a jazz club who was beating a prostitute.)
  • Serial Killer
  • Street Urchin: Stevie "The Stevepipe" Taggart.
  • Too Good for This Sinful Earth: Mary.
  • Troubling Unchildlike Behaviour: Lots and lots.
  • Turn in Your Badge: The Isaacsons take a "special assignment" leave of absence from the NYPD to work with the team.

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