The story begins with Theodore Roosevelt's funeral. The narrator, a reporter with the New York Times, decides to tell a story that happened more than 20 years earlier in 1896 when Roosevelt was Police Commissioner of New York City. A serial killer is murdering young male prostitutes.

Roosevelt invites the infamous Dr. Laszlo Kreizler to form a special unit to track down the killer. The unit also includes the narrator and three members of the police department. Kreizler's qualification is that he is an alienist who champions the radical new concept of forensic psychiatry: the belief that one can predict a criminal's behavior by reconstructing his personality based on evidence in the crimes themselves. This concept smacks of determinism. Thus, Kreizler was violently opposed by many, including the religious establishment, who believed Kreizler was denying that people were morally responsible for their crimes.

Because of the sensitivity of their mission, the small investigative unit operates secretly, but runs into powerful opposition. Over several months Kreizler and his colleagues perform the seemingly impossible job of identifying and tracking down the killer, using Kreizler's psychological methods.


This is a fascinating, though extremely gory, tale that includes a fictional historical introduction to the use of forensic psychiatry in law enforcement. Members of Roosevelt's special investigative unit also employ other new-fangled and controversial forensic science techniques (e.g. fingerprints).

Dr. Kreisler, the alienist, has plenty of opportunity to reflect at length on the state of psychiatry at the end of the 19th century, and especially on modern concepts of mental illness. Is criminality an illness or is it a moral failure? Does one choose to murder, or is one driven to murder? This is an engrossing novel, but definitely not for the faint-hearted.


Random House

Place Published

New York



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