BOOK REVIEW / The eyes don't have it: The Alienist - Caleb Carr: Little, Brown, pounds 16.99

IF THE term 'serial killer' has an ominously 20th-century ring, it's as well to remember that the most notorious - and most enigmatic - of this dread breed made his name at the end of the 19th. The Ripper murders are alluded to a number of times in The Alienist, also set at the fin-de-siecle, also in a city mired in decay and disease where a savage killer is on the loose. But this city is New York, home to the brilliant Dr Lazlo Kreizler, a psychiatrist - or, in contemporary parlance, an alienist - by profession, and a genius by reputation. Kreizler is a fictional hero, but in Caleb Carr's imaginings he becomes every bit as believable as the book's real-life characters, and the murders he sets out to solve take on a ghoulish plausibility.

The year is 1896, and another boy-prostitute has been found - strangled, mutilated, his eyes plucked out. The police have suppressed the details of these unnatural horrors, but the trail is absolutely cold. In a bold break with procedure, New York police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt - for it is he - enlists the aid of his old friend and former sparring partner Lazlo Kreizler. Can the doctor's strange forensic skills elucidate what has hitherto baffled the authorities? Lending doughty support is his journalist friend and our narrator, John Moore, and a household of other allies that includes a feisty, derringer-toting woman and two Jewish police detectives (psychiatrists are not the only social outsiders in late 19th century New York). His team assembled, Kreizler begins to put together a psychological profile of a killer. Why is he murdering only young male prostitutes? Why does he gouge out their eyes? Why are the victims exclusively of immigrant stock?

Carr keeps the plot simmering as Kreizler goes about his inquiries - a routine trawl in the grubby precincts of Prime Suspect, but newly astonishing here - and he suggests the whole practice of criminal psychology slowly evolving. It is remarkable to find schizophrenia (referred to here as 'dementia praecox') treated as a disorder still struggling in the foothills of credence. We are also witness to certain sciences gathering momentum - graphology, fingerprinting - and some that inevitably fade to nothing. At one point an x-ray is taken of the retina in the hope that it might retain an impression of the victim's last sight.

The machinery of justice is changing too ('I fear that in New York State, the electrical chair is increasingly usurping the gallows'), though not fast enough if the description of Sing Sing prison is to be credited. Kreizler and Moore are smuggled in here under dark to interview a convicted killer, and the scene looks forward - almost as a tribute - to the caged ferocity of Hannibal Lecter in the Thomas Harris books.

The Alienist isn't only an ingenious thriller. Carr brings enormous gusto to his portrait of old New York, where breakfast for the well-to-do might comprise 'cucumber fillets, Creole eggs, and broiled squab'. From the fetid reek of 'stale beer dives' to the baronial splendour of bankers' mansions, from dirt-poor tenements to the fanciest French restaurants, the city seems to rise off the page. This is also the place to learn, inter alia, about Bowery slang, local card games, and - as the plot thickens - Red Indian burial traditions, though Carr properly assimilates this material into the narrative.

Indeed, the few false notes to be heard occur not in the reconstruction of the past but in the language of the present. Even allowing that Moore is writing this account a quarter of a century later, one doubts that the phrase 'our killer wasn't factoring rest periods for his pursuers into his schedule' would flow readily from his pen. Such anachronisms are rare: Carr is so much the master of his material that the reader does not feel inclined to worry at what may or may not be historical anomalies.

At times I was reminded of Doctorow's recent The Waterworks, another journalist's tale from the New York of horse-drawn cabs, cobbled streets, corrupt officialdom - and unearthly Gothic horror. Both novels, coincidentally, stage their finale in the now-vanished Croton Reservoir. Both of them, not coincidentally, address the exhilaration and panic of a city on the way to discovering itself. But it's The Alienist which carries the deeper, darker impact, touching on the mysteries of psychological deviance and the imponderable nature of evil. Part of the book's triumph is that it accommodates big questions without sacrificing anything in accessibility; it recreates a world that is simultaneously alive and haunting. In The Alienist we seem to have witnessed the return of the dead.

Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Arts and Entertainment
The audience aimed thousands of Apple’s product units at Taylor Swift throughout the show
musicReview: On stage her manner is natural, her command of space masterful
Arts and Entertainment
Channel 4 is reviving its Chris Evans-hosted Nineties hit TFI Friday

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford plays Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade (1989)

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
A Glastonbury reveller hides under an umbrella at the festival last year

Glastonbury
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miles Morales is to replace Peter Parker as the new Spider-Man

comics
Arts and Entertainment
The sequel to 1993's Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, has stormed into the global record books to score the highest worldwide opening weekend in history.

film
Arts and Entertainment
Odi (Will Tudor)
tvReview: Humans, episode 2
Arts and Entertainment
Can't cope with a Port-A-loo? We've got the solution for you

FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets

Arts and Entertainment
Some zookeepers have been braver than others in the #jurassiczoo trend

Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant

Arts and Entertainment
An original Miffy illustration
art
Arts and Entertainment
Man of mystery: Ian McKellen as an ageing Sherlock Holmes
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Kitchen set: Yvette Fielding, Patricia Potter, Chesney Hawkes, Sarah Harding and Sheree Murphy
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

    Making of a killer

    What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
    UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

    Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

    Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
    Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
    Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

    No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

    Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
    Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

    Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

    The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
    Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

    Something wicked?

    Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
    10 best sun creams for body

    10 best sun creams for body

    Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

    Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
    Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

    There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

    The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

    Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
    Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

    One day to find €1.6bn

    Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
    New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

    'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

    Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
    Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

    Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

    The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
    Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

    Historians map out untold LGBT histories

    Public are being asked to help improve the map