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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.

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.
  • 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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