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brianmartin

Gurglings of a Putrid Stream

Thoughts on books and other assorted topics.

See also:  http://goppf.wikidot.com/swstart

My name:  Brian Martin

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

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

A book about both H. H. Holmes and the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 ought to stand or fall based on how well the author merges the two stories. It ought to, but Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City defies probability: it succeeds in spite of a conjunction that offers virtually nothing of its own. It's triumph is Larson's detailed evocation of one of this country's most remarkable architectural achievements. And Holmes? He's just there for the movie deal.

The fact is, Larson could have thrown out Holmes entirely and produced an even better book. It doesn't take much reading on the side to realize how much Larson has left out of this story, on the Exposition side. And I can't tell you how many times, as I was reading, that I wished in vain for more information about the Fair and it's exhibits. But I'm fair: I will admit that if it hadn't been for the Holmes angle, I might never have read the book, and I certainly wouldn't have read it now. Still, writing American History for the True Crime crowd -- that's odd, to say the least.

Holmes is without doubt one of America's most bizarre serial killers and certainly the most grandiose, having built a huge, block-long building in which to ply his trade. Unfortunately, not a great deal is known about his crimes. This is obvious, almost embarrassingly so, when juxtaposed against the massive amount of data available about the Exposition. Larson has the makings of a long article about Holmes here, but that's about it.

It doesn't matter. The period is the star here, and the Fair, and the men who designed it, most notably Daniel Burnham, around whom Larson builds his story. Burnham later designed the Flatiron building in New York, among many others. Frederick Law Olmsted, another principal designer, a landscape architect, was already famous for having designed Central Park. One of the fascinating aspects of the story is just how driven these men (and so many others) were. (And, of course, how little they cared for the men who actually built their creations.)

Larson, in a note at the beginning of the book, tells us, "this is not a work of fiction." The emphasis is his, and it's a significant observation. He writes less like a historian and more like a novelist. Though it explains why I was so often stymied for lack of information (it would have interfered with the pace and the drama), it also explains what appealed to me most about the book: its nostalgia. This, I believe, is the keystone of the work, and if that doesn't interest you, you might not like it much. Larson doesn't sugarcoat the past, but then he doesn't have to. He knows the Fair will overshadow everything else. That, and the seemingly long-gone desire to create something so magnificent that the whole world must stop and take notice.