The Alienist. April 2018.

Dear Rowley,

You know that reading is as fundamental for me as walking the streets of London and drinking G&T. When a book works its magic, I can drape myself around Bloomsbury Towers for hours on end until I have devoured every last page. It is the literary equivalent of binge watching. One such book that captured my imagination many moons ago was Caleb Carr’s The Alienist. Set in 1890′s New York, the Alienist in question is Dr Laszlo Kreizler who is at the vanguard of psychiatry in an era when the study of the machinations of the human brain were still looked on with suspicion.

Carr creates a nightmare New York in which boy whores in the Five Points (lower Manhattan’s slum district) are being abducted by a dark angel who mutilates the bodies in a fashion reminiscent of London’s Jack the Ripper. Kreizler assembles a team including society illustrator John Moore, Jewish police officers Marcus and Lucius Isaacson, Police secretary Sarah Howard, former street urchin Stevie and carriage driver Cyrus to delve into the psyche of this horrific killer to identify the man most likely to be perpetrating these horrible crimes.

Kreizler is a complex creature with a withered arm who has his own demons. Sarah is a porto-feminist and Moore a dilettante. Carr makes each character entirely believable and, what is more, turns New York into one of the leading roles. This is the era of millionaire industrialists such as J. P. Morgan, corrupt Irish police constables, crime lords and those boy brothels where bathtub gin is slopped out to anaesthetise the painted, be-frocked children as young as six being used for sex. Respectability is a thin skein in this hellish city.

I always knew The Alienist would be adapted for film or television one day though it has taken longer than I anticipated for a ten-part series to be presented on Netflix. Apparently the series cost $5 million per episode and it shows. The foul streets, bars and brothels of New York are recreated with minute detail as are the operas, balls and banquets at Delmonico’s populated by the Upper 400 of Manhattan’s social set. There must be more extras in The Alienist than The Ten Commandments. 

The casting is brilliant: Daniel Brühl as a ferrety, bearded Laszlo Kreizler, the gorgeous Luke Evans as John Moore and the feisty, nuanced Dakota Fanning as Sarah Howard. I am so pleased the scriptwriter chose to spend ten-hour episodes on this labyrinthine story. It is a slow burn on the written page and deserves as much on the screen. We experience the frustrations of the detective as they begin to build a mental picture of the killer and thought time is given as much emphasis as action.

This is most definitely a parental guidance Netflix production with the scenes of the murders rendered with stomach-churning accuracy. But gore aside, it is the relationship between the detectives and Dr Kreizler’s household and mental institution that really struck a chord with me. The laurels for acting have to go to Q’Orianka Kilcher as Kreizler’s dumb housekeeper Mary. The actress whispers not one word and yet the love and jealousy between she and Kreizler is played out with exquisite nuance.

Another great performance came courtesy of Matt Lintz as Stevie the street urchin. Stevie is disguised as one of the boy whores to entrap the killer. Lintz plays Stevie as a boy who has had to grow-up way beyond his years living on his wits. And yet when we find him in close proximity to the killer we see him for what he is: a minor in peril.

Though CGI graphics must have been brought into play to describe a New York with railroads flying over great swathes of the squalid city, it was almost indiscernible. I always longed to see New York in the 1890s with the Vanderbilt mansions lining Fifth Avenue and The Alienist granted that wish. The scenes set in high society are richly evoked and those extras must have eaten up a decent chunk of the $5 million so sumptuously and accurately costumed one and all were.

I am not going to write any spoilers except to say that the investigation is taken into Indian country and the killer proves to be as vulnerable as the boy whores he preys on. There are no happy endings in The Alienist and in this I find Caleb Carr to be true to the lives of his characters. Carr reunited the team of detectives for an even more shocking book entitled Angel of Darkness that centres on the abduction of a little girl. If this isn’t adapted for Netflix soon I shall cancel my subscription.

Actually, strike that. I live for Netflix now and barely turn on my television any more. I am a binge-watcher and am already four episodes in to RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 10. Drag Race is now a global phenomenon with serious rumours of a British series fronted by RuPaul and Michelle Visage. Personally, I’d prefer to see British Queens appear on the US version. There is only one RuPaul’s Drag Race and we don’t want any British production company to fuck with the format.

I do urge you to watch The Alienist. It reminded me most of Lynda LaPlante’s Prime Suspect starring Helen Mirren as Inspector Jane Tennyson in period costume. The Alienist shares the same production values of being unapologetically graphic and psychologically as deep as the ocean. So you see they do make them like that.