When people think of 19th-century serial killers, they tend to start and stop with Jack the Ripper. A few will mention Chicago’s H. H. Holmes, but that’s about the end of it. These two either called attention to themselves (Jack) or got caught (Holmes), ensuring their places in true-crime history.
But who’s to say there weren’t more serial killers plying their trade in Gilded Age America? That the police at the time didn’t know (or care) to look for them until psychology and technology married law enforcement and gave birth to forensic science?
That’s what The Alienist is all about. Based on Caleb Carr’s blockbuster 1994 novel of the same name, it’s a 10-episode TNT original series that could be described as “Ragtime meets Silence of the Lambs.”
New York City in 1896 is growing like Topsy: filthy, teeming, corrupt, wracked with social, ethnic, sexual, and racial conflict—a playground for the 1%, and prison for the rest … and by the way, someone is occasionally butchering teenaged boy prostitutes. When a murdered 13-year-old “boy whore” comes to the attention of notorious alienist Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Brühl: Rush, Inglourious Basterds), he links the killer’s actions to the earlier deaths of two other children and believes the same nutcase did all three.
Kreizler wins the covert cooperation of the outgoing President of the Police Commission, Theodore Roosevelt (Brian Geraghty: Ray Donovan, Chicago Fire/Med/P.D.), who provides the good doctor with two young, science-minded detectives and his own secretary, Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning: Every Secret Thing, American Pastoral), a headstrong young woman who was probably voted “Most Likely To Become a Suffragette” in finishing school. They join Kreizler’s pet New York Times illustrator, John Moore (Luke Evans: The Girl on the Train, Beauty and the Beast), to track down the serial killer as the victims pile up.
We’d call an “alienist” a criminal psychologist now; the term refers to a 19th-century theory that criminals were alienated from their true selves. Back in 1896, though, psychology was in its infancy—Freud had published only two books by then, and the term psychopath had been around for only 11 years. The alienist’s work was considered outré at best, and the doings of the Devil at worst. Kreizler doesn’t help his reputation by being abrupt, egotistical, and bullheaded. Brühl is well-cast; imagine his Niki Lauda from Rush in a period three-piece suit and bowler, and you’ve got a good idea how this plays.
Despite the historical Roosevelt’s attempts to clean up the NYPD, policing at this time was more about uniformed, organized thuggery than anything resembling law enforcement. Standard procedure for closing an unsolved murder case was to round up a member of the year’s most-despised minority group, beat a confession out of him, then hang him before anybody could ask questions. Add to this the fact that the victims are all street urchins servicing homosexuals, and you can imagine how uninterested the establishment is in actually solving the crimes.
Enter those two young detective sergeants. They’re most unloved by the NYPD for two reasons: they’re Jewish, and they believe that science can replace billy clubs in police work. During the investigation, they use such beyond-cutting-edge techniques as forensic anthropology and studying fingermarks (now called fingerprints) and tool marks to slowly carve down the suspect pool. The series doesn’t always manage to avoid the inevitable CSI: Belle Époque moments, but the science usually seems organic to the story and believable in context.
The settings are gorgeously atmospheric. Budapest stands in for turn-of-the-century Manhattan, and you’ll be able to feel the grit and smell the filth and polluted rivers and unwashed bodies. Mansion interiors are the height of late-Victorian excess, Delmonico’s is a fantasia of white and gold filigree, and the tenements and “disorderly houses” are truly vile.
The costumes are also lovely to behold: high-gorge coats, brocaded vests, and stiff white collars for the gentlemen; jewel-toned, cinch-waisted dresses with astonishing sleeves for the ladies; elegant hats all around. The proles melt into the general Victorian-grunge aesthetic so familiar from Ripper Street, Copper, and Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films.
All is not Delmonico steak. The series piles on the ick factor, whether it be with the murder victims, butcher shops, morgues, or sewers (literal or figurative); try to avoid watching while you’re eating dinner. There’s hardly a sympathetic character to be found. Luke Evans’s Moore, in particular, is stiff-necked and clench-jawed, and after three episodes has yet to show much more personality than that.
The Alienist is a moody, visceral (in many different ways) crime procedural set in a time when great wealth collided head-on with great privation and injustice—when policing was not yet a craft, far less a profession. It features lush visuals, an involving if familiar story, and a fine if nettlesome performance by its lead actor. It airs Monday nights on TNT through March 26; you can stream previous episodes from the TNT website. Like serial-killer stories? See it done the old-school way.
Lance Charnes is an emergency manager and former Air Force intelligence officer. His standalone near-future thriller South is set in the New Gilded Age of the 2030s, while his art-crime novels The Collection and Stealing Ghosts feature bad behavior among today’s robber barons. His Facebook author page features spies, art crime and archaeology, among other things.