Tuesday, February 24, 2009

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

The Devil in the White City arcs through the life of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair--the white city--from conception to abandonment, and follows it along with the story of the first big serial killer to emerge from the nation's headlines. It's non-fiction, but it's told in the human scale of a novel, not presuming quite so far as to invent dialogue and carry on with the narrative authority of an novelist--it's not fair to call it fictionalized but it does develop the story with some familiar thematic elements, in a fashion that reads like a plot advanced through the usual means of witnessing human conversations and travel, and revealed in descriptive passages of what a narrator might have seen were he present. When possible, he includes actual first-hand impressions, from letters or diaries, and this fills out the details pretty nicely. The prose styling felt a little too conscious to me, Larson peppers in some undergraduate-level wordplay here and there, and it reads a little like a weekend news magazine piece, but it's not meant to be a deep meaningful novel, and fine for what it is (and it's not like I don't sympathize).

I think he's got a bigger problem with filling out the character of the serial killer, one (pseudonymous) H. H. Holmes. He admits (his notes are very considerate) that he took some liberties about Holmes' motivations and mannerisms, basing it largely on modern criminology. And that's just it: pretty much anyone who's read a mystery novel, watched a movie about one of these monsters, or cringed at yet another expert profiler (like a police psychic, but with university credentials) offered as a resident experts by an ever-hungry news cycle exploiting the horror du jour, and you sort of realize that even if this Holmes guy coughed up the first sick nugget, this is still the exact same vein of twisted criminal psychology that's been artistically mined for a hundred years now, readily identified even to someone like me who normally goes far to avoid this kind of crap.

And Larson had an opportunity to make him something different too, maybe something scarier, because this was one industrious psychopath, a man who carefully worked in a crematorium and laboratory space within the hotel and retail space he creepily and inexpertly engineered. The views of the facilities got to me a lot more than the customary(!) psychological portrayal of a mass murderer. In terms of a physician's curiosity he was not really that far afield from the popular concept of the ghoulish efforts of the earlier Victorian medicos, with the important caveat that Holmes hastened the cadavers to his studio. He couldn't have been good at it, and here I'm left wondering what lies this sick motherfucker told himself as he donned the apron. His amorality and his obsession were the scary parts; his oily smoothness and whatever frisson he might have attained from a murder was less convincing, absorbing too much from popular research. I am not grateful for imagining these things.

I'll give Larson some credit, though: the horrifying spectacle of our first signature serial killer seems to grab something essential about late nineteenth century America, as does the sensation of the 1893 fair. The world's fair, chock-a-block with corporate exposition, artificial landscapes, Bowdlerized history, inaccurate ethnicity, and engineered marvels, feels like it's catching the modern American mindset at its source. It's like the lies we told ourselves were fresh enough to be charming, a fake paradise designed with real integrity. Reading about the world's fair is like witnessing the arrival of a beautiful throwaway culture developed before injection molding made it reproducible and ubiquitous. We get a great tour of the architectural and engineering* talent of the day, all management and salesmen with big ideas and an eye toward the grand. It took big imagination, persistence, and a hell of a work ethic, pulled off at great expense and just in time. People a hundred years from now will doubtlessly be curious about our quaint optimism about, say, the digital age, and marvel how it belies the horrors of our time. They'll see their own culture in here too.

The fitting counterpoint to the ideal of the white city was, of course, the dismal squalor of urban life, the reeking stockyards and fever and coal dust (which, I'll add, Larson portrays very effectively). To the theatrical fact of the fair, the criminal is a fine juxtaposition. I can't believe that this was the first serial murderer our country housed, but his was the first case to grow into a modern media circus, and probably the first such case to really get absorbed and solved. Maybe, oddly enough, it was a function of the growing value of life.

* And what the hell, here's Ferris and Roebling, and no mention of the college that positively owned nineteenth century engineering?


Artemesia said...

I'll keep an eye out for Larson's book. Your review made the time and place of it interesting. A book you probably read..about the same time, but New York City and a serial killer is 'The Alienist,' by Caleb Carr,

There are similarities with Larson's M.O. as you described. I found 'The Alienist,' a great read and am/was familiar with the streets and landmarks Carr used in his story. Very authentic and well researched. If you haven't read it, I think you'd like it.

Keifus said...

You shouldn't have too much problem finding it--it was the sort of book that was highly represented in airport book shops a year or so ago. (I was considering it for that Chicago contractor down there, when I was doing that thing.)

He did pick a clever pair of snapshots to show off an interesting time. I wouldn't have read this or any other book about serial murderers without a recommendation.


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