We’re inspired by the series premiere of “The Alienist” on TNT, adapted from Caleb Carr’s novel about grisly serial murder in gritty, corrupt turn-of-the-century Manhattan; and a trio: police reporter, reform-minded Commissioner (Theodore Roosevelt), and psychologist or “alienist,” bent on uncovering the truth.
If you’ve enjoyed the first episodes of the show, you may want to try reading a few titles (fiction, mystery, nonfiction, and graphic novels) like these selections–with similar dark themes, gaslit suspense, twisted psychology, and 19th-century settings. Warning: nothing cozy here!
The Alienist by Caleb Carr
A society-born police reporter and an enigmatic abnormal psychologist–the “alienist” of the title–are recruited in 1896 by New York’s reform police commissioner Teddy Roosevelt to track down a serial killer who is slaughtering boy prostitutes. The investigators are opposed at every step by crime bosses and the city’s hidden rulers (including J. Pierpont Morgan); they distrust the alienist’s novel methods and would rather conceal evidence of the murders than court publicity. Tension builds as the detectives race to prevent more deaths. From this improbable brew, historian-novelist Carr ( The Devil Soldier, 1991) has fashioned a knockout period mystery, infused with intelligence, vitality, and humor.
Carr’s followup in the “Lazlo Kreizler” series is The Angel of Darkness
In the Shadow of Gotham by Stefanie Pintoff
The wreck of the steamship General Slocum in 1904 cost Det. Simon Ziele of the New York City police both his fiancée and the full use of his right arm. In response to those losses, Ziele has abandoned big-city policing for the quiet dullness of Dobson, a town in Westchester County, but a brutal murder interrupts his retreat from the world. Someone slashes and bludgeons to death Sarah Wingate, a Columbia mathematics graduate student whose brilliance evoked jealousy in her peers, in her home under circumstances that resemble the notorious murders of Lizzie Borden’s parents. Ziele’s investigation is soon co-opted by Alistair Sinclair, a student of criminology who’s convinced he knows the culprit’s identity.
Not long after Jack the Ripper haunted the ill-lit streets of 1888 London, H.H. Holmes (born Herman Webster Mudgett) dispatched somewhere between 27 and 200 people, mostly single young women, in the churning new metropolis of Chicago; many of the murders occurred during (and exploited) the city’s finest moment, the World’s Fair of 1893. Larson’s breathtaking new history is a novelistic yet wholly factual account of the fair and the mass murderer who lurked within it. Bestselling author Larson (Isaac’s Storm) strikes a fine balance between the planning and execution of the vast fair and Holmes’s relentless, ghastly activities. The passages about Holmes are compelling and aptly claustrophobic; readers will be glad for the frequent escapes to the relative sanity of Holmes’s co-star, architect and fair overseer Daniel Hudson Burnham, who managed the thousands of workers and engineers who pulled the sprawling fair together 0n an astonishingly tight two-year schedule. A natural charlatan, Holmes exploited the inability of authorities to coordinate, creating a small commercial empire entirely on unpaid debts and constructing a personal cadaver-disposal system…Larson is most interested in industriousness and the new opportunities for mayhem afforded by the advent of widespread public anonymity. This book is everything popular history should be, meticulously recreating a rich, pre-automobile America on the cusp of modernity, in which the sale of “articulated” corpses was a semi-respectable trade and serial killers could go well-nigh unnoticed.
The Bedlam Detective by Stephen Gallagher
Set in England in 1912, this masterful whodunit from Gallagher (Red, Red Robin) introduces Sebastian Becker, a former policeman and Pinkerton agent who now works as the special investigator to the Masters of Lunacy, looking into cases involving any “man of property” whose sanity is under question. His latest assignment takes him to the small town of Arnmouth to determine whether Sir Owain Lancaster has gone around the bend. Lancaster returned from a disastrous trip to the Amazon, which claimed the life of his wife and son, only to attribute the catastrophe to mysterious animals straight out of Doyle’s The Lost World. Lancaster believes that the creatures that plagued him in South America have followed him home, and are responsible for the deaths of two young girls, a theory supported by a local legend of a beast of the moor.
“It gathers the dead and dying from the rivers and streets and is kept busy night and day with the misery of the living.” That early New York Times description of the city’s Bellevue Hospital encapsulates its history and current incarnation, in the view of Oshinsky (history, New York Univ.; Polio: An American Story). From its 1736 beginnings as an almshouse with a one-room infirmary to the current 25-story, 1,200-bed version, where more than 600,000 patients are seen annually through emergency rooms and outpatient clinics, Bellevue has always served the underserved. As the largest public hospital in the nation’s largest city, it has been at the forefront of dealing with such crises as yellow fever, cholera, smallpox, Civil War wounded, the Spanish flu, AIDS, 9/11, Hurricane Sandy, and the Ebola virus. Oshinsky places his story squarely in the history of American medicine and public health as well as of Bellevue itself. He takes numerous side trips into the personalities who have passed through, and the political and economic forces that have come to bear on the institution.
As a midwife in the turn-of-the-century tenements of New York City, Sarah Brandt has seen suffering and joy, birth and death — and even murder. And the crime-ridden streets of the teeming city offer little relief from either…
Thinking she has been summoned by German immigrant Agnes Otto to usher a new life into the world, Sarah Brandt is greeted by the news of an untimely death instead. It seems that Agnes’s beautiful younger sister, Gerda, had fallen into the life of a “Charity Girl”. Caught up in the false glamour of the city’s nightlife, she would trade her company — and her favors — not for money, but for lavish gifts and an evening’s entertainment. And now she was dead, victim, no doubt, of one of her “gentlemen friends”. No one cares much about the fate of girls like Gerda; but Sarah does. And she vows to find her killer. To do so, she turns to Sergeant Frank Malloy. As the two pursue an investigation that leads from the bright lights of Coney Island to the stately homes of Fifth Avenue, they find that their shared passion for justice may cost them dearly…
The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl
Pearl’s gripping debut novel, set in Boston in 1865, begins with the discovery of the maggot-ridden, dead body of Judge Artemus Healey. The murder shocks the city, and the police are horrified by the possibility that Healey may have been alive for the four days during which the maggots consumed his body. The next murder is equally as disturbing: Reverend Elisha Talbot is found in the underground passages beneath the church, having been buried alive with his feet burned off. The members of the Dante Club–publisher J. T. Fields, essayist Oliver Wendell Holmes, and poets James Russell Lowell and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow–have been laboring on translating and discussing Dante’s Divine Comedy and quickly recognize the gruesome murders from the pages of Dante’s Inferno. Knowing that only a limited number of people are familiar with Dante’s work, the members of the Dante Club conduct their own investigation into the killings. They zero in on a disgruntled Italian academic living in Boston, but the killer, whom they refer to as Lucifer, may be even closer than they suspect. Expertly weaving period detail, historical fact (the Dante Club did indeed exist), complex character studies, and nail-biting suspense, Pearl has written a unique and utterly absorbing tale.
A Tale of the Batman: Gotham by Gaslight by Bryan Augustyn, writer; Michael Mignola, pencils; P. Craig Russell, inks; Eduardo Barreto, artist; [Batman created by Bob Kane]
In Victorian era Gotham City, Bruce Wayne is operating as the bat-garbed vigilante, the Batman, who is feared by the guilty and the innocent alike. One night, Batman saves a wealthy couple from being robbed by three orphans (Dickie, Jason and Timmy) and defeats their handler, Big Bill Dust. At the same time, Ivy, an orphan turned exotic dancer and street worker becomes the latest victim of Jack the Ripper. The murders keep happening night after night; citizens of Gotham believe the Batman and Jack to be the same man. Stage actress Selina Kyle, a protector of the women from “Skinner’s End”, verbally attacks Gotham policemen James Gordon and Chief Bullock for their inaction in stopping Jack. Later that night, Selina acts as bait for Jack. It works, but Jack gets the upper hand during their fight until the arrival of Batman. After escaping, Batman asks Gordon to help him bring the Ripper down.
Murder As a Fine Art by David Morrell
At the start of this exceptional historical mystery, an artist of death prepares himself for his greatest creation—the gruesome slaughter of a young shop owner and his family. In 1854, East Londoners hadn’t seen such horrific murders since 1851, when John Williams also killed a shopkeeper and his family in a nearby neighborhood. The new crime finds Detective Inspector Shawn Ryan at the grisly, chaotic crime scene, where evidence is trampled as the killer blithely escapes. Visiting London at the time, for reasons he can’t fully understand, is Thomas De Quincey, scandalous “opium eater” and author of the 1827 satirical essay, “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts,” and two newer essays in which he lauds various horrific details of the Williams killings as sublime art. DI Ryan initially treats the drug-riddled, elderly writer as a suspect but eventually accepts his help, if grudgingly. Military-thriller writer Morrell switches genres here in a riveting novel packed with edifying historical minutiae seamlessly inserted into a story narrated in part by De Quincey’s daughter and partly in revealing, dialogue-rich prose.
Jack the Ripper: A Journal of the Whitechapel Murders 1888-1889 adapted by Rick Geary
Rendering the belching chimneys, puzzled bobbies and bewhiskered worthies of Victorian London in brooding b&w panels, Geary revisits the legend of Jack the Ripper in this stylish graphical novel. On the one hand, this is a 19th-century police procedural: in examining the brutal murders of five prostitutes in London’s Whitechapel district in 1888, Geary recreates the scene of each gruesomely surgical murder, annotating the evidence, the forensic procedures of the time (some theories held that an image of the murderer remained affixed to the victim’s retina) and the eerily conflicting testimony of witnesses. On the other hand, it’s a deadpan pulp narrative in the form of a trade comic book in which Geary’s haunting drawings unite seamlessly with his moody, well-researched text. As the atrocities mount, the story tracks the public hysteria surrounding the murders, including journalistic excess and rising anti-Semitism. Geary doesn’t try to identify “Saucy Jacky.” Instead, he taps the legend’s powerful mystery and, in the process, the period’s social strictures and hypocrisies.
Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
Intrigued by contemporary reports of a sensational murder trial in 1843 Canada, Atwood has drawn a compelling portrait of what might have been. Her protagonist, the real life Grace Marks, is an enigma. Convicted at age 16 of the murder of her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his housekeeper and lover, Nancy Montgomery, Grace escaped the gallows when her sentence was commuted to life in prison, but she also spent some years in an insane asylum after an emotional breakdown. Because she gave three different accounts of the killings, and because she was accused of being the sole perpetrator by the man who was hanged for the crime, Grace’s life and mind are fertile territory for Atwood. Adapting her style to the period she describes, she has written a typical Victorian novel, leisurely in exposition, copiously detailed and crowded with subtly drawn characters who speak the embroidered, pietistic language of the time. She has created a probing psychological portrait of a working-class woman victimized by society because of her poverty, and victimized again by the judicial and prison systems…Although the narrative holds several big surprises, the central question — Was Grace dupe and victim or seductress and instigator of the bloody crime? — is left tantalizingly ambiguous.
(Also adapted to a 2017 limited series on Neflix)