Well, That Was Overrated: “Devil in the White City”

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America
Erik Larson
447 pages, with notes
Vintage Books
2003

I don’t get it.

I just don’t get it.

Why does everyone love this book?

Why has it been on my reading list since I saw it on my dad’s nightstand in the sixth grade?

How did an author this good produce a book this “meh?”

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Meh.

 

As previously reported, I loved Isaac’s Storm, also by Larson. That book is the story of many lives intertwining through and around one defining event: the 8 September 1900 hurricane that wiped Galveston, Texas, from the face of the earth.

Devil in the White City promises, on its dust jacket, that it “intertwines the true tale of two men–the brilliant architect behind the legendary 1893 World’s Fair, striving to secure America’s place in the world; and the cunning serial killer who used the fair to lure his victims to their death.”

The serial killer in question is H. H. Holmes, who built a torture palace, lured in vulnerable women, and sold his victims’ skeletons to medical schools. I never much liked any media I’ve consumed on Holmes, which is usually maudlin and ghoulish in an un-self-critical way, so take that as a disclaimer for this review.

Think that other Chicago serial killer who liked to keep everything “in house”–John Wayne Gacy–but with a dastardly mustache instead of clown makeup.

File:Johnwaynegacypogo.jpg

You’ll remember this creepy-@$$ picture a lot more than anything in this book. Gacy as “Pogo the Clown.” Wikimedia Commons.

The aspiring architect is….I’m actually not sure. There were a bunch of ambitious business types and architects that paraded across the pages. They come across as nebulous, stuff, and not individuated. The mass of researched details bogs down the development of character, rather than enhance it. In fact, it becomes a bit boring. This was also my problem with McCullough’s book on the Johnstown Flood.

The plot of the book is similarly disjointed. While the description implied a struggle of polarities between what Larson called the “White City” of the Columbian Exposition (yeah, there’s some sort of World’s Fair we are supposed to care about) and the “Black City” of exploitation manifested by Holmes, who uses the beginnings of capitalist industrialization to lure peasant girls into his mansion, his bed, and finally, his basement.

We do not care too much about these poor young women, however. While Larson’s writing is consistently strong, and even expresses some of the brilliance of Isaac’s Storm, he takes on a simpering, supercilious tone whenever he discusses Holmes. Is this supposed to put us inside the mind of the killer? Ick.

At any rate, it fails to convey much empathy or sympathy for the victims.

One thing Larson gets right is how Holmes’ crimes were possible only in the newly forming capitalist system. As young people, including, for the first time, large numbers of women, left home, they left the social networks that had protected them and would have otherwise been alerted to their disappearances. It is much like the stories of Elizabeth Báthory, if they can all be believed, would only be possible under a feudal system of castle walls and vast household staffs.

But still, read Isaac’s Storm instead of this book.

2/5 stars: Not the worst book I’ve ever read, but a real disappointment compared to the author’s other works.
2/5 ‘fraidy cats: Don’t move in with strangers, kiddos.
3/5 ick-factor: Gacy had a crawl space. This guy had a whole basement.

One comment

  1. I agree! I get what he was trying to do, but the book would’ve been better without the World’s Fair business. There was A LOT of skimming involved with those pages!

    Liked by 1 person

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