73 pages 2 hours read

Caleb Carr

The Alienist

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1994

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Summary and Study Guide


The Alienist, by Caleb Carr, is a New York Times-bestselling historical thriller originally published in 1994 and adapted for television as a TNT series in 2018. A historian by trade, Carr applies his expertise to The Alienist as well as its sequels, The Angel of Darkness (1997) and Surrender, New York (2016). Set in New York City in 1896, The Alienist tells the story of Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, a psychologist (“alienist,” in the parlance of the day) who leads a secret investigation into a string of gruesome killings. He is assisted by John Schuyler Moore, a New York Times police reporter who acts as the story’s narrator; Sara Howard, the police commissioner’s secretary and an aspiring detective in an age when no women had yet ascended to that position; and the Isaacson brothers, Marcus and Lucius, new recruits to the detective ranks who bring fresh ideas and substantial knowledge of modern forensic methods. Kreizler subscribes to a theory of individual psychological context, which posits that childhood experiences, especially traumas, have substantial influence on a person’s behavior in adult life. Using this theory of context, Kreizler teaches his fellow investigators to build a psychological profile of a savage killer who is murdering and mutilating children who are being commercially sexually exploited, nearly all of whom are boys wearing makeup and dressed as girls. Kreizler’s investigation proceeds in secret thanks to the clandestine approval and support of Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt, the most famous and by far the most important of the novel’s real-life historical figures. The investigation requires secrecy because the guardians of the city’s established order, from the mayor’s office to the Episcopal Church to the patrons of the Metropolitan Opera House, regard Kreizler’s views with suspicion. Furthermore, Roosevelt is in the process of purging the city’s police department of its corrupt old order, reforming its practices, and building a modern police force. The old order, however, will not go quietly.

This guide uses the book’s 2006 edition, which includes an afterword by Carr.

Content Warning: This guide includes graphic descriptions of violence against children, including murder, sexual assault, and bodily mutilation. It also includes references to the commercial sexual exploitation of children. Furthermore, because the novel is set in 1896, it includes dialogue that reflects the language of that era.

Plot Summary

The Alienist opens in January 1919. At Delmonico’s restaurant in New York City, New York Times reporter John Schuyler Moore and psychologist Dr. Laszlo Kreizler reflect on the life and recent death of their friend, Theodore Roosevelt. These reflections carry them back to spring 1896, when Roosevelt, then president of the city’s board of police commissioners, enlisted their help in solving a string of serial murders in which the mutilated victims were all children. Since the investigation took place in secret, the public has no knowledge of it even after 23 years. Moore decides it is time to tell the story.

On March 3, 1896, 11-year-old Stevie Taggert, one of Kreizler’s carriage drivers, appears at the door of Moore’s grandmother’s house and insists that Moore accompany him right away. Stevie drives Moore to the western anchor of the unfinished Williamsburg Bridge, where Moore finds distressed Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt, several police sergeants, and the horribly mutilated body of 13-year-old Georgio Santorelli. Moore learns that Santorelli was known as “Gloria” at a "pleasure club” called Paresis Hall, where he and many other young boys were commercially sexually exploited; the boys paint their faces and dress as girls. A cryptic note from Kreizler suggests urgency and proposes a meeting.

The following day, Kreizler and Moore meet Roosevelt at police headquarters on Mulberry Street. In the hallway, Kreizler chastises Detective Sergeant Patrick Connor for spreading false rumors about the killer’s probable identity. Moore runs into an old friend, Sara Howard, who works as Roosevelt’s secretary. Outside Roosevelt’s office, Moore and Sara have an unpleasant encounter with a pair of real-life gangsters: the intelligent and refined Paul Kelly, owner of the New Brighton Dance Hall, and the boorish James T. “Biff” Ellison, who owns Paresis Hall. In the commissioner’s office, Roosevelt, Kreizler, and Moore discuss the case and prospects for solving it. Roosevelt approves a secret investigation headed by Kreizler and supported by only a handful of trustworthy detectives.

Days later, Moore and Kreizler meet Lucius and Marcus Isaacson, Roosevelt’s hand-picked forensic experts. Kreizler asks the Isaacsons to examine the exhumed remains of the Zweig children, a brother and sister murdered in 1893 and discovered atop a water tower. Meanwhile, upon learning that Connor had paid a visit to the Santorelli family’s flat, Sara asks Moore to accompany her to the tenement district and see what they can learn from the murdered boy’s parents. Roosevelt appoints Sara his personal liaison to the Kreizler group, making her part of the investigative team. Sara joins Moore and Kreizler at the Metropolitan Opera, where Mayor Strong warns the controversial alienist to keep away from police headquarters. At Delmonico’s, the Isaacsons report their findings. A fingerprint match—a new and controversial technique—confirms that the team is dealing with a serial killer. Moore investigates Paresis Hall, where he is drugged and nearly assaulted before being rescued by Stevie Taggert. Moore wakes up at 808 Broadway, the team’s new headquarters. Kreizler introduces the team to the principles of psychology, including his own theory of context. Another body is discovered.

As Part 2 begins, the team meets Roosevelt at Castle Garden, a stone fortress inside Battery Park, built during the War of 1812, where Sara sees the killer’s ghastly handiwork up close for the first time. Moore and Marcus investigate the Golden Rule Pleasure Club, where the latest victim, 14-year-old Ali ibn-Ghazi, was commercially sexually exploited and went by the name “Fatima.” On the club’s rooftop, Moore meets Joseph, a boy no older than 10 who is also exploited at the club; he explains that “Fatima” met a man who promised to take him away to live in a castle. At Brubacher’s Wine Garden, the team reads a note the killer sent to Mrs. Santorelli; it is filled with horrific details about the murder of her son. During a long night spent analyzing the note at 808 Broadway, Sara confronts an inexplicably stubborn Kreizler about his unwillingness to consider a woman’s primary involvement in the formation of the killer’s character. After reconsidering Sara’s viewpoint, Kreizler asks Moore to accompany him to Sing Sing Prison, where they interview a notorious child-killer named Jesse Pomeroy and learn that Pomeroy’s mother played a destructive role in his childhood.

Having developed a working profile of the killer, the investigators split into teams of two and monitor possible target locations. The killer strikes again, knocking out Cyrus Montrose, one of Kreizler’s domestic servants, and escaping with his next victim. This time Roosevelt cannot arrange for the team to view the child’s body until it has been taken to the morgue. Outside the morgue, the gangster Paul Kelly rescues Kreizler and Moore from an angry mob of immigrants seeking answers to the murders—a mob Kelly admits to fomenting. Inside Kelly’s carriage, the gangster makes it clear that he enjoys watching the city’s elites squirm in fear of a social uprising. Kelly drops off Kreizler and Moore at the Museum of Natural History, where the two investigators learn that the killer might have knowledge of ritual mutilations carried out by the Sioux against their enemies. Outside the hospital, Patrick Connor forces Kreizler and Moore at gunpoint into an ambulance and then drives them to the Madison Avenue home of J. P. Morgan, the legendary financier.

Part 3 opens with Kreizler and Moore at J. P. Morgan’s home, where they are pressured into ending the investigation by a group of desperate men who represent the city’s established order, including ex-inspector Thomas Byrnes, former head of the corrupt police department. Morgan speaks with Kreizler and Moore alone, apologizes for their abduction, appears open to Kreizler’s views, and assures them that he is not their enemy, though he warns them that men such as Byrnes will not stop trying to frustrate their efforts. The investigation continues. On the theory that the killer might be a former soldier who saw duty on the frontier, the Isaacsons travel to South Dakota, while Kreizler and Moore go to Washington, DC, to investigate available records at relevant agencies and hospitals. At the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Moore learns of the 1880 double murder of Reverend Victor Dury and his wife in New Paltz, New York, and the subsequent disappearance of their teenaged son, Japheth. At dinner that night, Kreizler remembers that New Paltz is the birthplace of a man named John Beecham, a former corporal committed to St. Elizabeth’s hospital and discharged as mentally unfit for service in the US Army.

Thanks to Sara’s research, Kreizler and Moore track down Japheth Dury’s older brother Adam, a farmer who lives in Newton, Massachusetts. Adam Dury confirms nearly every aspect of the team’s psychological profile, including the fact that Mrs. Dury treated Japheth with cold contempt. Adam also reveals that, as a boy, Japheth was raped by a farmhand named George Beecham. Kreizler is now convinced that Japheth Dury and John Beecham are the same person, that the teenage Japheth killed and mutilated his parents, and that the adult who calls himself Beecham is the serial killer for whom they have been searching. On the return trip from Newton, Kreizler and Moore narrowly escape a would-be assassin, and Kreizler stuns Moore by admitting that he has thought about marrying Mary Palmer, one of his domestic servants whom, like Stevie and Cyrus, he rescued from the city’s justice system. After returning to New York, Moore is horrified to learn that Mary has been killed, and Stevie badly injured, when Connor and his thugs appeared at Kreizler’s home in search of the alienist. Outside the morgue, a grieving Kreizler blames himself for Mary’s death and insists that he is finished with the investigation.

Back at 808 Broadway, Sara convinces Moore that they can use what Kreizler taught them and finish the investigation. The Isaacsons return from the Dakotas with information proving that Corporal John Beecham is indeed the killer they seek. The team’s four remaining investigators spend weeks developing ideas and following leads. They learn that the US Census Bureau employed Beecham as recently as December 1895; that Beecham then went to work for a collections agency; that he frequents a stale-beer dive in the notorious Five Points neighborhood; and that he lives on the top floor of a tenement at 155 Baxter Street. Inside Beecham’s dark and tiny flat, they discover horrific evidence, including a photograph of a dead white settler with arrows protruding from his mutilated body, dozens of human eyeballs preserved in formaldehyde, and what appears to be the remains of a human heart. Back at 808 Broadway, Moore learns that Joseph, the 10-year-old boy from the Golden Rule Pleasure Club, has been murdered, most likely by Beecham as a message to the investigators.

Kreizler reappears outside the morgue, consoles Moore, and asks Moore to accompany him to the opera on the night of June 21, at which point Kreizler promises he will rejoin the investigation. Grateful but confused, Moore agrees. Roosevelt joins the investigators at 808 Broadway. They decide to wait for Beecham on June 21 atop High Bridge Aqueduct and Tower, where they guess he will take his next victim. On the appointed evening, Moore meets Kreizler at the Metropolitan Opera House. Using Stevie and Cyrus as decoys, Kreizler and Moore quietly slip away from the opera and head to Croton Reservoir, where Kreizler believes Beecham will strike next. On the reservoir’s rooftop promenade, Kreizler and Moore find a sobbing young boy, bound and naked.

Beecham surprises Kreizler and Moore from behind, knocks out Moore with a punch to the jaw, and ties both men to a nearby iron fence. When Moore awakens, he sees Beecham standing over the boy. Connor and two of his thugs appear out of nowhere, having followed Kreizler from the opera. Beecham cowers in fear, mentally reverting to Japheth Dury, the scarred and terrified little boy. Connor orders his thugs to untie Kreizler and Moore and tells the pair to get lost so he can finish off Beecham, but Kreizler refuses. On Kreizler’s signal, Jack McManus, a former prizefighter and bodyguard for Paul Kelly, suddenly appears to pummel Connor and his two thugs. Kreizler thanks McManus, frees the boy, and begins to question a quivering Beecham. Connor awakens, shoots Beecham in the chest, and points his gun at Kreizler. Sara emerges from the shadows to shoot and kill Connor. Beecham dies before Kreizler can continue questioning him. Kreizler and the Isaacsons take Beecham’s body to the Kreizler Institute for autopsy and analysis of the brain. Roosevelt arrives, suspects a conspiracy to deceive him, and orders Sara and Moore arrested.

In Roosevelt’s office at police headquarters, Sara and Moore tell the police commissioner the truth about Kreizler’s activities and Beecham’s death, at which point Roosevelt expresses both understanding and gratitude. Moore walks to New Brighton Dance Hall to seek answers from Paul Kelly. The gangster claims to know nothing about McManus’s heroic appearance atop the reservoir, but Kelly’s cryptic-yet-confident manner convinces Moore that Kreizler had indeed struck a deal with Kelly, who shares Kreizler’s enemies, as well as his ideas about the social order. Back at the institute, Kreizler reveals that Beecham’s brain showed no visible abnormalities, suggesting that the causes of his aberrant behavior were psychological rather than neurological, though Kreizler confesses to Moore that so little is actually known about the human brain that no one can say so with certainty.

The story concludes in 1919. Moore explains how all the key figures have fared in the last 23 years. He also reflects on the many changes that have occurred in the city since 1896.