We love the moody and atmospheric murder mystery of The Alienist, the new TV show based on the novel by Caleb Carr. Set in 1896, it delves deep into the corruption and decadence of the nineteenth century, when the science of crime was just beginning to flourish.
Here are eight books that show the seedy underbelly of the modern world beginning to come into its own.
The Devil’s Half Mile by Paddy Hirsch
opens in a new window Seven years after a financial crisis nearly toppled America, traders chafe at government regulations, racial tensions are rising, gangs roam the streets and corrupt financiers make back-door deals with politicians…1799 was a hell of a year. Young lawyer Justy Flanagan returns to New York to solve his father’s murder, and uncovers a looming crisis that could topple the nation – and a group of conspirators who’ll kill to keep their secret.
The Alchemy of Murder by Carol McCleary
opens in a new window The world’s most famous reporter, the intrepid Nellie Bly, teams up with science fiction genius Jules Verne, the notorious wit and outrageous rogue Oscar Wilde, and the greatest microbe-hunter in history, Louis Pasteur. Together, they must solve the crime of the century. Set during the 1899 World’s Fair, they hunt an enigmatic killer who stalks the streets as a plague rages in Paris.
The Gangs of New York by Herbert Asbury
opens in a new window Published in 1927, Herbert Asbury’s account of the gangs in 19th century New York prior to the rise of the Mafia is a classic of urban history. The Gangs of New York dramatically evokes the destitution and shocking violence of a turbulent era, when colorfully named criminals like Dandy John Dolan, Bill the Butcher, and Hell-Cat Maggie lurked in the shadows, and infamous gangs like the Plug Uglies, the Dead Rabbits, and the Bowery Boys ruled the streets.
The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
opens in a new window A work of nonfiction that reads like fiction, Erik Larson narrates the history of a master builder, a killer, and the great fair that obsessed them both. Interweaving the story of architect Daniel Hudson Burnham, designer of the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, and serial murderer H.H. Holmes. In this book the smoke, romance, and mystery of the Gilded Age come alive as never before.
Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
opens in a new window By the author of A Handmaid’s Tale (and recently adapted into a Netflix series), Alias Grace takes the reader back to the 1840s, to the story of Grace Marks, convicted of murdering her employer, his housekeeper, and his mistress. She claims to have no memory of the murders.
An up-and-coming expert in the burgeoning field of mental illness is engaged by a group of reformers and spiritualists who seek a pardon for Grace. He listens to her story while bringing her closer and closer to the day she cannot remember. What will he find in attempting to unlock her memories?
By Gaslight by Steven Price
opens in a new window William Pinkerton is already famous, the son of the most notorious detective of all time, when he descends into the underworld of Victorian London in pursuit of a new lead on the fabled con Edward Shade. Adam Foole is a gentleman without a past, haunted by a love affair ten years gone. When they join forces, a fog-enshrouded hunt through sewers, opium dens, drawing rooms, and séance halls ensues, creating the most unlikely of bonds: between Pinkerton, the great detective, and Foole, the one man who may hold the key to finding Edward Shade.
A June of Ordinary Murders by Conor Brady
opens in a new window Dublin, June 1887: The city swelters in a long summer heat wave, the criminal underworld simmers, and with it, the threat of nationalist violence is growing. When the mutilated bodies of a man and a child are discovered in Phoenix Park and Detective Sergeant Joe Swallow steps up to investigate. With the Land War at its height, the priority is to contain political crimes, and these murders appear to be ordinary—and thus of lesser priority. But when the evidence suggests high-level involvement, and the body count increases, Swallow must navigate the treacherous waters of foolish superiors, political directives, and frayed tempers to solve the case, find the true murderer, and deliver justice.
The Italian Secretary by Caleb Carr
opens in a new window Caleb Carr, author of The Alienist, reaches back to the age of opium dens and Jack the Ripper, when fictional detective Sherlock Holmes made murder a science.
Mycroft Holmes’s encoded message to his brother, Sherlock, is unsubtle enough even for Dr. Watson to decipher: a matter concerning the safety of Queen Victoria herself calls them to Edinburgh’s Holyroodhouse to investigate the confounding and gruesome deaths of two young men—horrific incidents that took place with Her Highness in residence. And while recent attempts on Her Majesty’s life raise a number of possibilities, these intrigues also seem strangely connected to an act of evil that took place centuries earlier…
Feature image courtesy of TNT