24
Aug
15

Book Review: The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed AmericaThe Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson

There’s been some buzz lately about Toronto bidding on a World’s Fair, which frankly sounds like a bad idea to me. Those things are expensive, take a long time to put together and don’t really have a lasting purpose. If I remember The Power Broker right, the World’s Fair is what brought Robert Moses down and he was as powerful a man as it got in New York.

Anyway, with World’s Fairs in mind, I decided to read a book I’ve had sitting around for a long time but never bothered to read: Erik Larson’s The Devil In the White City. Larson’s the author of several pop-history books: In the Garden of Beasts, about the rise of the Nazi party, and Dead Calm, about the sinking of the Lusitania. This one is about the 1893 World’s Fair, but also about infamous serial killer H.H. Holmes, too.

As far as pop history books go, White City is functional. There’s a story, characters and a setting. Things happen, characters explain why they happened and then something else happens. I suppose Larson deserves credit for that.

But as far as a good book goes, it misses the mark.

Essentially, Larson bounces back and forth between two plots, one about the Fair and another about Holmes. Occasionally, he follows a few other people, too, like crazed assassin Patrick Prendergrast.

In the left corner, there’s the story of how the fair came together, starting as a way to prove Chicago was a city on the same scale as New York and was the result of a few people’s focused visions: landscape, all-white architecture, the then-revolutionary invention of the Ferris wheel.

And in the right corner is Holmes, a manipulative and slick sociopath who constructed an infamous murder house, containing rooms that shot gas or contained soundproof incinerators. He killed perhaps dozens of people, typically young single women.

He weaves between these two plots (pausing occasionally to briefly follow Prendergrast) and tries to draw parallels and tie them together into one continuous narrative. It kind of works. Kinda.

The thing about these stories is how they all kind don’t really have anything to do with each other. They all happened at the same time, sure, but Holmes could’ve killed people in any city at any time, probably. Aside from a short visit to the fair, his story doesn’t really have any connection to the other plot. And on the other hand, none of the principals of the other story likely heard of Holmes before he was arrested.

But throughout the book, Larsen jumps back and forth at a nearly dizzying pace. One moment he writing about a specific kind of flower used in landscaping; a few pages later, he’s writing about how Holmes built a box to burn his victim’s bodies in. Eventually it’s hard to even connect the two, as Holmes moved on from Chicago to other cities: St. Louis and Toronto, most notably.

Taken as a whole, Larson’s book feels like it’s two underdeveloped books packed into one. Neither narrative really requires or builds off the other and at time, I felt like I was reading two padded-out magazine features at the same time. Before long, I found myself rushing to get through it.

But going a bit deeper made the book even more uninteresting. Larson admits his research methods rely heavily on period documents: he read many books, including Holmes own memoir. However, he admits he didn’t hire a researcher or use the internet, preferring to look at documents and make his own judgments. Which he does, quite a lot, packing his account with a lot of supposition.

This gets a little annoying and troublesome, especially for Holmes. After all, Larson admits, “what motivated Holmes may never be known.” Although he consulted with others on what he thinks happened, Larson tries to paint pictures of people’s final moments with Holmes and provide a motive where nobody can definitively say what happened or why. In other words, his accounts are colourful, but who knows if they’re correct.

Like I said above, the book felt like two stories that could’ve used some editing (particularly in how often they repeat information) and ran in a magazine somewhere. Here, they’re mashed together with some narrative twists and presented as one consecutive story. It’s too bad there isn’t one.

Rating: 3/10

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