Book Review: The Alienist by Caleb Carr

No, this is not a book about aliens, as the title might make you surmise. Instead, it is a historical mystery about a psychologist, known at the time as an “alienist.” I was introduced to this book through its TV series adaptation released early in 2018, starring Luke Evans, Dakota Fanning, and Daniel Bruhl. I watched the ten-episode series at the beginning of this month as part of my immersion into everything terrifying for Spooktober.

I loved the drama so much I immediately ordered the book it is based on from my local library. And the only word I can think of to describe this book is…intricate.

Release: Dec. 1994 (the year I was born, ironically)

Synopsis: It is 1896, New York City, and young boys are being horrifically murdered and mutilated. Dr. Laszlo Kreizler—a psychologist, known at the time as an ‘alienist’—is determined to solve the case of the horrible serial killer using modern criminology and psychology methods, along with the help of newspaper reporter John Moore and Sara Howard, the secretary to the newly appointed police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt.

Non-Spoiler Review

This book is stunningly written, with lush historical detail and complex character motivations. If you are fond of Victoria Thompson’s Gaslight series or Anne Perry’s Charlotte and Thomas Pitt series, this book is a more complex, gritty version of those series. It has been a long time since I read a historical mystery which was so well written. It is darker than most modern cozy mysteries, and it’s kind of cozy mystery meets Jack the Ripper. It deals with more serious topics of the era, like child prostitution, police corruption, etc. and it is filled with so much vivid detail half the time it feels as if you’re reading a non-fiction history instead of a fiction murder mystery.

The book definitely plays with a similar idea as Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, where John Moore—the narrator of this book—plays Watson to Laszlo Kreizler’s Holmes. Kreizler is brilliant and as a psychologist who observes people. However, he lacks tact and kindness. He does not feel like simply a brilliant mind, and instead an intelligent, but flawed human being. He feels real, as do all the characters in this book.

It is quite long for a historical mystery (nearly five hundred pages in book form, and over a thousand in the ebook form I read it in), but the plot never feels slow-moving. Having seen the TV series just a few weeks prior to reading to book, I knew who the killer was. However, that did not deter my liking of this book in the slightest, as it is filled with historical descriptions that were not added into the series.

The one thing I did not like about this book—a small gripe, I admit, but a gripe nevertheless—was the modern lens placed over everything. There is a certain view of topics—femininity, sex, prostitution—that are viewed now very differently than what they were viewed back in the late Victorian era. Carr does a fabulous job at getting the information of the era across to the reader, but at certain points it feels as if the characters’ reactions to certain information are a bit too modern. For example, the big deal is made of Sara working for the police department as a woman. It’s made a rather important theme, and yet during the time it was less of an issue for the average person. Carr just focuses on the things we believe in the modern day are more important, instead of what people at the time would have valued. It was a small thing I didn’t really like, but it didn’t immensely effect my enjoyment for this book.

Honestly, there is little I can criticize this book for. It is a brilliantly written mystery, and I am disappointed to learn Carr only wrote one sequel, The Angel of Darkness (published 1997). I was hoping this would be a longer series I could get into, but I certainly hope to read the second book soon!

Bonus: TV Show Review

Having read the book and watched the TV series, I couldn’t help but compare the two. The series is much more visual, which means it’s much more grotesque, often bordering on horror more than the book. While the book is dark, the TV series is even darker.

The two plots, however, are very closely aligned. The biggest difference I noticed is that the book is told only from John Moore’s perspective, whereas in the TV series we see scenes which he was not privy to in the book. I actually quite liked this, because it gave the other characters more depth.

The only pet peeve I had about the TV series was the added sex scenes. John Moore visits brothels in the TV series, which does not fit at all with his character in the book, and there are several sex scenes involving Lucius Isaacson, one of the detective sergeants working with Kreizler and Moore. I hated all these additives, as they added nothing to the plot and lowered my liking for several characters. However, I know Hollywood cannot help itself.

I did enjoy the TV series almost as much as the book, though it is quick darker and more visual. If you are a fan of horror movies, though, you should have no problem with the gore. However, I did like that the book left the violence up to your imagination a bit.


I recommend both the book and the TV show. They were incredibly similar with slight differences, and I’m so glad the book was made into an entire series, as opposed to a two-hour movie, as such a short movie could not have done the complexity of the book justice.

I hear they are making a second season of the TV show, which I definitely will watch, and I plan on reading the book sequel as well.

Have you heard of this book or TV series? Is it something you would be interested in reading/watching? Let me know your thoughts down in the comments, follow my blog for more madness and, as always,

Best wishes in your life full of adventure,

Madame Writer

15 thoughts on “Book Review: The Alienist by Caleb Carr

  1. Great review! It reminds me of a book that revolves around a real case in American! It is written by a journalist.
    The crimer, who kept sending threatening letters to a big company he used to work at, used bombs to cause much panic. And it was also a psychologist who made great contributions to this case! Most of His assumptions of the crimer were unbelievably accurate. I’m impressed so much😱Have you heard of it?

    I’d like to put this TV series on my to-watch list. Maybe I can watch with my friends one day😂. Thank you for your Great review!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I read the book years ago and remember staying up late a couple of nights to finish it. I remember the read as a really good and, as you say, ‘gritty’ historical/ horror thriller.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s definitely a styled book and show and the tone is very different in both. I did find the first couple episodes of the TV show irritating too, mostly because of Luke Evans character at the beginning, but he (and the show) really grew on me. As for the book, I can understand that some might not like the style, especially if you aren’t a massive fan of tons of pointless historical tidbits thrown in. To each their own.

      Liked by 1 person

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