True crime fans are really having a moment right now. Between the endless amounts of podcasts and the entire Investigation Discovery channel lineup, there is no shortage of true crime nuggets to pour over at any given time. Well, now TNT has stepped into the game with something slightly different that will still satiate everyone's seemingly innate need to investigate a grisly crime. The Alienist is an murder mystery set in 1896 New York City. Dakota Fanning plays a fierce aspiring female police detective named Sara Howard. Sara from The Alienist is not based on a real person, though — of course — there was a real woman who blazed a trail at the NYPD.
The Alienist (series writing credit: Kristina Lauren Anderson) is actually adapted from a 1994 Caleb Carr novel by the same name. The title, which may be a little confusing to some, is actually a real term that was use in the very early days of forensic psychology to describe people like the series' main character, Dr. Dr. Kreizler (Daniel Bruhl). Per the New York Times, the term actually comes from the belief that the mentally and criminally ill were "alienated" from their true selves. It's a word that's well out of use by now.
The series does incorporate some real historical figures like future President of the United States and the New York City Police Commissioner at the time, Theodore Roosevelt, who was also a character in the book. Although the character of Sara Howard is fictional, there are some similarities between her and a real woman of the same time period named Isabella Goodwin.
Per The Village Voice, in 1912, Goodwin became the first woman to rise to the rank of detective in the New York City Police Department. According to the In Your Face Women blog, Goodwin started out her career in the police department by serving as a police matron. Merriam-Webster says that a police matron was essentially the lone woman in charge of searching and taking care of any women or children that were arrested.
So like Sara's character in The Alienist, who begins her career as a police secretary, Goodwin was determined to climb the ladder. Thanks to her hard work, determination, and demonstrated prowess for the job, she was promoted. (According to The Village Voice, Goodwin helped "run down a gang of taxi bandits.") Sara may not be based on Goodwin, but she certainly has her spirit.
Sara's official character description from the TNT series website says:
"Sara Howard is the first woman hired by the New York Police Department as a secretary to commissioner Theodore Roosevelt. She sees this job as a stepping stone to becoming the first female police detective in New York City. Self-possessed and intelligent, Sara grew up as an only child who was doted on by her father. She not only, 'shakes hands like a man,' but considers herself just as competent, if not more so, than any of the men on the force. Well-bred and well-spoken, Sara becomes the liaison between Roosebelt and Kreizler's team and is immediately intrigued by the case being investigated by Dr. Laszlo Kreizler and John Moore."
Carr's background as a historian certainly aided him in creating a world and investigation in The Alienist that seems completely authentic and appropriate to the time. After all, the series takes place around the time of the Jack The Ripper and the Thames Torso murders in Europe. A serial killer as brutal as the one who Sara and her team begin tracking is completely believable, considering the real crimes of that time, as is the idea of a woman who has to fight to be taken seriously in testosterone-filled workplace.