And so in “The Alienist,” like Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz,” we enter into New York of the 1890s – mysterious, terrifying, but somehow as contained, tightly bounded and intricately constructed as a dream – up towering bridges in mid-construction they may some day offer a way out; down dark alleyways in the dead of night; along the ramparts of a long-since-demolished reservoir where the New York Public Library now stands; into the bowels of wretched tenements and tormented lives. Which is to say this very real Gilded Age New York – precisely re-imagined, painstakingly researched, with all the smells, fumes, conveyances and horrors intact – brings us back to something primordial about human beings, if not about human society, something still with us. The vulnerability of children. The predatory aspects of human will and instinct. The forlorn? hope that reason and kindness and empathy, reaching out in space and back in time, might understand the secrets of the world, save the weak and fallen and abandoned, make broken lives at least partly whole again?
Big City Book Club: Ric Burns on The Alienist and Its New York – NYTimes.com