Stalking A Victorian Killer

IN "RAGTIME," E. L. DOCTOROW'S turn-of-the-century panorama, the novelist created characters and events in which there were seeds of some of the important issues of our time, from urban terrorism to women's liberation. Doctorow also scattered historic figures among his fictional characters. Caleb Carr has baldly borrowed these devices for The Alienist (493 pages. Random House. $22), set in New York in 1896, but he has a different purpose. He is writing about a serial killer who preys on children, mostly adolescent male prostitutes. His technique is unnervingly brutal: "[W]here once there had been eyes there were now only bloody, cavernous sockets ... The right hand had been chopped neatly off. At the groin there was another gaping wound ... The buttocks, too, had been shorn off in what appeared large ... carving strokes." Sound like the handiwork of anyone we know?

What follows has to be one of the most painstaking murder investigations in fiction. Theodore Roosevelt, who was in fact police commissioner in '96, asks his friend Laszlo Kreizler, a brilliant "alienist" (a quaint name for psychologist), to head the investigation. Kreizler assembles a team which could be a model of late-Victorian P.C.: a New York Times reporter familiar with the criminal underworld, an ambitious young woman in T.R.'s office, two smart Jewish cops, a large black man on Kreizler's payroll and a street-savvy kid who is about the same age as the victims. First, they pore over what little literature exists on serial killers. They make an eerie visit to a psychopathic killer in Sing Sing and go to Sioux country, where their suspect may have learned about mutilation from the Indians. They descend more than once into the darkest comers of the city, where young men with "painted" faces sell their bodies. But mostly they wait for the next killing.

It's uncomfortable to call a book about the murder of children entertaining, but this one is undeniably engrossing, despite the grisliness. A sense of delicacy has certainly not discouraged Hollywood, which is paying Carr $500,000 for film rights. For readers made squeamish by the gore, "The Alienist" does have diversions. Carr's descriptions of New York-nights at the opera, dinners at Delmonico's, encounters with J. P. Morgan-are so authentic that he was able to pass the manuscript off as nonfiction. Eventually he confessed, but the publishers decided to go ahead with the book. They knew that it is something far more impressive than a recounting of an actual case: it is a product of Carr's own extraordinary imagination.