The Alienist: Review and Discussion Space. Episode One

The Alienist is based on a 1994 book by historian Caleb Carr. It takes place during the Guilded Age of American Society in New York City, and features historical figures from the era.


TNT has produced a ten episode miniseries based on the book, starring Daniel Brühl (Inglorious Basterds and Captain America: Civil War) as Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, Dakota Fanning (War of the Worlds and Man on Fire) as Sara Howard, and Luke Evans (Beauty and the Beast and The Hobbit) as John Moore.

Each week, I am going to set this page up as a discussion space, followed by a review once the episode airs, and I have written it. Luckily, TNT aired a preview Sunday night after the SAG awards.

Title: “The Boy on the Bridge”

Written by: Hossein Amini and Kristina Lauren Anderson

Directed by: Jakob Verbruggen

Synopsis: New York City in 1896. A police officer finds a body on the Williamsburg Bridge construction site. An urchin comes to the home of Dr. Laszlo Kreizler about the body. Kreizler sends his servant, Stevie to fetch New York Times illustrator John Moore. He finds him in a house of ill repute with a girl. Stevie takes him to the bridge, where John’s old friend, Police Commissioner Teddy Roosevelt lets him come up. John sees the body if Georgio Santotelli, a boy prostitute who dresses like a girl. An officer, Conner, says that the boy worked at a hall run by gangsters Biff Ellison and Paul Kelly. Roosevelt orders Conner to have Kelly in his office the next day.

Kreizler interviews a man named Wolff at Bellevue Hospital who stabbed his friend the night before, and John accompanies him. Kreisler determines that Wolff is not the murderer of Georgio. At police headquarters John introduces Kresler to Sara Howard, the first female employee of the NYPD. They meet with Roosevelt. Kreisler mentions the Zweig twins, who were patients of his, who were murdered in a similar manner as Georgio. He requests to see Georgio’s body to determine if the same person committed both crimes. Roosevelt refuses.

John asks Sara to get the police file on the Zweig case, giving her his illustration of the body. Roosevelt interrogates gangsters Paul Kelly and Biff Ellison about the murder, and Kelly openly pays off Connor. Kreisler visits the site of the Zweig twins’ killing, a water tower. Disturbed by John’s drawing, Sara gives him the file, and wants to be kept informed. John gives the file to Kreisler, but the file is scant on details.

The bodies of the Zweig twins are exhumed, and Mrs. Zweig visits Kreisler, blamimg him for the deaths of the twins, feeling that her son’s need to dress as a girl made him a target for the killer. Roosevelt lends Kreisler the Issacsson brothers, Marcus and Lucius, a pair of Jewish detectives who are schooled in modern methods. They are asked to autopsy the twins and give a report. Kreisler finds a bloody sleeve wrapped in one of his papers in his carriage. Seeing a suspicious man in the street, he chases after him, thinking it’s the killer. He chases him into an abandoned building but the killer eludes him. Kreisler vows to find the killer no matter what.

Historical characters:

  • Theodore Roosevelt (October 27, 1858 – January 6, 1919) the 26th President of the United States from 1901 to 1909. He was President of the New York City Board of Police Commissioners from 1895–1897.
  • Thomas F. Byrnes (June 15, 1842 – May 7, 1910) was an Irish-born American police officer, who served as head of the New York City Police Department detective department from 1880 until 1895, who popularized the term rogues gallery.
  • Paul Kelly born Paolo Antonio Vaccarelli. (December 23, 1876 – April 3, 1936) was an Italian immigrant who founded the Five Points Gang in New York City after starting some brothels with prize money earned in boxing.
  • James “Biff” Ellison (c. 1861-1920s) was a New York City gangster affiliated with the Five Points Gang and later a leader of the Gopher Gang.

The reporters interviewing Byrnes are historical characters in the novel, but theur names are not mentioned in the show:

  • Jacob Riis (May 3, 1849 – May 26, 1914) was a Danish-American social reformer, “muckraking” journalist and social documentary photographer. He is known for using his photographic and journalistic talents to help the impoverished in New York City.
  • Lincoln Steffens (April 6, 1866 – August 9, 1936) was a New York reporter who launched a series of articles in McClure’s, called Tweed Days in St. Louis, that would later be published together in a book titled The Shame of the Cities. He is remembered for investigating corruption in municipal government in American cities and for his early support for the Soviet Union.

Changes from the book: The book is told from John’s point if view, whereas the show is shown as third person. The book opens with the funeral of Teddy Roosevelt. Since this is an historical fact, it’s not exactly a spoiler, but in the book two discuss Teddy and remember the investigation. This tells the reader that those two characters survive the events of the novel. There is no such framing sequence in this show. In the novel, John is a reporter, not an illustrator. When Stevie finds him, he’s at his grandmother’s house where he lives and not in a brothel. In the novel, Wolff shot a little girl, not an adult. In the novel, Kreisler and Sara already know each other and Roosevelt is enthusiastic about the investigation. In the novel, Kreisler doesn’t tell the Issacssons that the two crimes are connected, he tells them it’s a cold case in order to test them and their methods before bringing them into the investigation. Kreisler doesn’t run after the killer, in fact he downplays the incident in order to keep the killer unaware of their investigation. Neither of the twins were severely mutilated and both of them had their eyes cut out. In the show, the boy’s body was mutilated but the girl’s body wasn’t.

My take: I read this book way back in 1995 when I was working at the Astor mansion in Rhode Island as we were acting tour guides representing the era. I loved the book (the sequel as well), but thought that due to the subject matter it would never be made into a film. How times have changed.

The sets and costumes look wonderful, and the whole atmosphere of the series is spot on. I don’t mind the changes to the book at all, although I don’t yet see what the point of changing John’s job losses Changing the point of view allows us to focus more on Kreisler’s journey. 1 They’re going for the “show don’t tell” method in demonstrating the sexism that Sara has to face at Mulberry Street. I’m looking forward to seeing how they will show some of the detective work, because a lot of it is standing around discussing theories.

Author background: Carr is a historian. He was an editorial assistant for the Foreign Affairs Quarterly and a contributing editor to MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History. He is the son of Lucien Carr, journalist and was close friends with Alan Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Willian Burroughs. 2