Carr, Caleb: The Alienist

Caleb Carr Alienist

The Alienist by Caleb Carr relates the story of a serial killer of preteen boys in 1896 New York. Astonishingly (for a lengthy book full of period detail), it moves at a page-turning clip, concluding with a showdown on the city’s rooftops. Anthony Comstock, Theodore Roosevelt, and J. P. Morgan are among the players. The book is beautifully plotted, psychologically astute, and historically sound, but perhaps the sociological take-away is the most interesting: “We revel in men like [the killer]. They are the easy repositories of all that is dark in our very social world. But the things that helped make [the killer] what he was? Those we tolerate. Those, we even enjoy.” In brief: we create monsters—and punish them to make ourselves feel virtuous by comparison.

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