You think Manhattan is grimy now? The Alienist takes place in a 19th century New York in which disease spread quicker than office gossip, and tenements seemed to wobble under the weight of too many inhabitants. In this New York, lit only by dull gas lamps, all matter of dastardly deeds can transpire in damp alleyways, without being discovered by forensic analysis and street cameras.
Every fixture of the setting in this new 10-part mini-series, which premieres tonight on TNT, rings as true. Its historical accuracy glares just as severely as Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Brühl), the alienist — a type of early psychologist — who attempts to catch a serial killer that preys on poor young boys. The Alienist, which takes place in 1896 Manhattan, chronicles the partnership formed between the alienist Kreizler and the reporter John Schuyler Moore (Luke Evans), and the policewoman Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning) to track down serial killers, before "serial killer" was even a term.
Given its attention to detail and inclusion of characters straight from history books (looking at you, Teddy Roosevelt), it’s easy to assume The Alienist is based on a true story. Unfortunately for true crime lovers, the central crimes in The Alienist are not real. The Alienist is based off of Caleb Carr’s 1994 book of the the same title. But for a while, everyone — including his editor and agent — thought that The Alienist was nonfiction.
Before writing The Alienist, Carr was primarily a military historian and non-fiction writer (and a successful one, at that). His publisher attempted to dissuade him from writing fiction. Carr wrote the The Alienist anyway, and sneakily convinced his editor and agent that the book was a true story, told in novel form. When Carr admitted the story was entirely fictional, they decided to publish it anyway. The book was a massive success.
That said, much of Carr’s story is based on fact, lending the book (and show) an undeniable sheen of plausibility. “It was important to me that everything in my book was true, except for my story,” Carr said of his meticulously researched novel. The very first sentence of book’s New York Times review pointed out the intense atmospheric specificity of The Alienist. “You can practically hear the clip-clop of horses' hooves echoing down old Broadway...You can taste the good food at Delmonico's. You can smell the fear in the air.” A horrendous serial killer very well could exist this world.
Multiple figures from history appear in The Alienist, and even show up in the first episode. James Pierpont Morgan, for example, makes an appearance during the concert scene (he’s the guy with the large, red nose). Theodore Roosevelt shows up as the police commissioner, which was a stop in his career before becoming the 26th President of the United States. Further installments in the Lazlo Kreizler series features scenes with suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton, railway mogul Cornelius Vanderbilt, and lawyer Clarence Darrow.
In the case of The Alienist, truth is not stranger than fiction. Instead, truth exists as a setting through which a single fictional thread can run. The reality depicted in The Alienist could easily coexist with the other gristly crimes of 19th century Manhattan, like Lizzie Halliday, New York's first identified female serial killer, and the gang violence that wracked Lower Manhattan. Even if the events aren't true, you'll walk away from the show with a greater understanding of the history of New York.
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