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.
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