Amurph11’s #CBR4 Review #7, Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
“I was born with the Evil One standing as my sponsor beside the bed where I was ushered into the world, and he has been with me since.” -H.H. Holmes
I am lagging way behind the proverbial bandwagon in this review. Everyone and their Aunt Margaret has read this book and recommended it to their friends. It has been on constant 2-for-1 sale at every majour bookstore for the past five years. It also has an appealing cover font, and is about a hugely interesting era in one of my favorite cities in the world. In other words, I’m not sure why it took me so long to pick this one up from a friend’s bookshelf. But I’m certainly glad I did, because it’s a great read.
The best thing I can say about Devil in the White City is that it’s highly cinematic (and indeed, Leonardo DiCaprio bought the film rights to it in 2010. Kathryn Bigelow was at one point attached to direct, a rumor I dearly hope proves to be true). It interweaves the story of Daniel H. Burnham, chief architect of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and titular White City, and the story of H. H. Holmes, known as America’s first serial killer. The two men are linked by the World’s Fair, which represented to Burnham his life’s work, and to Holmes the opportunity to pursue his (I don’t exaggerate when I call the murdering of women Burnham’s life’s work. In his own confessions, he said “”I was born with the devil in me. I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than a poet can help the inspiration to sing.”). Much is made of the juxtaposition of the Black City and the White City, and though the metaphors can sometimes hit you like a mallet, at the foundation of these two stories is an important point: Chicago at the time was a fairly depraved city. The distribution of wealth was incredibly unequal, the crime rate appallingly high. The World’s Fair offered an opportunity to not only line rich men’s pockets, but to show the world (not to mention its own residents) a more glorious picture of Chicago. For a season, the black and smelly streets were paved over in marble. But no matter how much blood, sweat and money were poured into the building of the fair, it was a temporary structure, built simply to distract.
Like I said, the metaphor is obvious, but the point behind it is no less valuable for all its dramatic value, and intertwining both stories makes it all them more effective. The story behind the building of a Romanesque White City in Chicago is indeed inspiring. But contextually, it took place during a very dark period in Chicago’s history, and by personifying that darkness in the character of H.H. Holmes, Larson drives home the point that for every shining city there’s a seamy underbelly. And believe me, he drives the point home. And into the driveway, and then backs out and pulls in again, for good measure.
Devil in the White City is, perhaps above all other things, deliciously pulpy. This is clearly a book geared towards people who don’t make a habit of reading non-fiction. Clunky metaphors abound, and some license is taken to up the dramatic ante (though admirably, it is followed up shortly with a lengthy disclaimer as befits a seasoned historical non-fiction writer). But – and I cannot emphasize this enough – this is not a bad thing. In fact, I would call Larson’s departure from traditional non-fiction a solidly good thing. I’m currently taking a writing class (and as a quick side-note: if any of you who live in Boston have not yet heard of Grub Street, do yourself a favour) in which the teacher made the excellent point that every non-fiction writer should take classes in fiction writing, and vice-versa. Erik Larson has certainly benefited from a fiction writing class in his time, and as readers we benefit from it as well.
Recommended for: most people, really. It’s hard not to enjoy this book. But so much the better if you enjoy crime lit or architectural fiction, because there’s a lot of both.
When to Read: during a thunderstorm, like any good serial killer book.
Listen With: Inoffensive jazz. “Night in Tunisia” by anybody.