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

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year


Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk