Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Devil in the White City

The Devil in the White City is an odd duck. Erik Larson's well-received "history" of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair seeks to tell the tale of "Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that changed America" through the parallel stories of Daniel Burnham, the architect that oversaw construction of the Exposition, and H.H. Holmes, a serial killer that preyed upon young women attracted to Chicago and the "White City" of its Fair. Larson is a good writer, and the story of Burnham, Holmes, and the Fair are interesting enough; but, while the book is a decent read, it's not really satisfying.

For one thing, there's no real theme that unites Burnham and Holmes, whether in the similarity of their passions or the juxtaposition of their accomplishments. Larson's well-crafted pace, which uses a lot of foreboding to build suspense of the doom sure to strike at some point in the narrative, only makes the constant switching between the two plotlines aggravating. There were several times where I wished I was reading a single book on either Burnham or Holmes, but I held hope that Larson would tie it all together in the end. He doesn't, and that failure is compounded by the fact that Larson never really gets into how the Fair "changed America." The epilogue lists a number of new ideas and inventions that the Fair inaugurated, but that should have been the meat of the book rather than a paragraph (and sometimes just a sentence) at the tail-end of the story.

I was also unimpressed with Larson's approach to the subject as history. While I don't really have a problem with his "novelist" style of prose (Larson frequently writes of what his subjects were thinking), I think it failed him with the Holmes story. He creates a narrative of Holmes that portrays him more as a Hannibal Lector psychopathic god than the more banal portrait the evidence shows: a psychopath, but one ultimately motivated by greed, more fraudster than Jack the Ripper. And it feels as though Larson wrote Holmes like this simply because it makes for a more interesting story.

On the flip side, Larson's story of Burnham is a waste, as he becomes much more concerned with personality duels between board directors and the administrative challenges of building the Fair than what is the most interesting aspect of his story: how Burnham's vision of the Fair affected the course of American architecture for the next half-century. Although Larson finally brings the subject near the end, and while he obviously admits its importance as it becomes a central part of the book's climax, he only devotes a few paragraphs to what should have been more fully explored.

The Devil in the White City is an okay book and I enjoyed Larson's writing style; but, it doesn't achieve greatness in theme nor does it fully capture its own subjects. It probably makes a good starter for those interested in late nineteenth-century Chicago, American architecture, and serial killers of the period, but nothing more.

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