Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Review: The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

History is a subject that often bears the charms of a box of saltines, a chore kids endure only because they know that recess is next. Unfortunate, really, because behind history's names and dates is a wealth of spellbinding stories that can enrich our perspective of the world via knowledge of what came before. As such, there is no better historian than the one who can sit down at the campfire and spin a fuckin' yarn, chief among them surely Erik Larson on the evidence of The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America.

Yeah, that'll be abbreviated from here on out.

The Devil in the White City is historical nonfiction that relates three true stories. First, Larson details architect Daniel Burnham's struggle to orchestrate construction of the World's Columbian Expo held in Chicago in 1893. Secondly, the book delves into America's first serial killer, a certain H. H. Holmes who used the Expo as a preying ground for mostly female victims. Thirdly, The Devil in the White City tells the story of late 19th century Chicago, a filthy city bustling with equal parts vice and civic pride.

So, to tackle those in reverse order:

Larson paints the picture of turn of the century Chicago as an industrial giant of a city eager to prove its cultural capability to the rest of the world. Larson effectively captures the spirit of the city, its now-unthinkable civic pride that drove it to complete the impossible task of building the biggest world fair in record time. It's the details he provides, however, that lay bare the grim reality beneath it all: cholera outbreaks caused by tainted drinking water, corpses of horses and dogs rotting in the street, skies choked with coal dust. Chicago was a city booming, a city overwhelmed, a city whose growth had outstripped its morality.

As such, it offered the perfect environment in which a certain H. H. Holmes could murder a string of victims that may have numbered in the hundreds. The city was flush with visitors, so what's another missing person to the overworked Chicago police force? In handling Holmes Larson thankfully resists getting cheap and sensational, leaving the chilling facts to speak for themselves. What's perhaps most interesting about Holmes is not that he built a death-trap hotel and gave it a vigorous workout as much as the fact that he was an amoral charmer with an ungodly gift for manipulation. This was a man who borrowed $2500 from a great uncle-in-law and immediately forged a counterpart check. This was a man who registered his hotel's property to a fictitious name to facilitate deflecting debt collectors. This was a man who saw life insurance as a free paycheck to be invoked as often as he liked. The sheer audacity of this guy's evil chutzpah is staggering.

As for Daniel Burnham's role in building the expo, Larson tells the story of a group of people who pushed a mammoth project from concept to completion despite fires, storms, deaths, missed deadlines, and a bank-crushing financial crisis. It's the struggle to build an ambitious dream into reality, a story claimed bursting with universal appeal (despite ownership claims by America). Larson weaves the various threads of the tale with a novelist's penchant for storytelling, restructuring cold history into a compelling narrative. The flow of information is manipulated to build suspense for certain developments, case in point the night I couldn't stop reading until it was revealed what structural marvel Chicago built as a response to the Eiffel Tower, which I'll not spoil beyond saying it's only fitting that America's answer to Paris's landmark was a goddamn ride.

A ride in which some people died, by the way. In a fair in which other people died. In a fair that was built upon the occasional worker's death. Christ, there was a lot of death back then, wasn't there? One thing The Devil in the White City illustrates is just how less predictable death was back then. Practically every person in the book was touched by premature death, in either their own lives or the lives of loved ones, and if pneumonia and poor sanitation weren't enough there was a psychopathic animal like Holmes taking advantage of an inadequate criminal system. While modern medicine and current law enforcement certainly isn't perfect, it's difficult to walk away from The Devil in the White City without newfound appreciation for the last century of progress.

But what a place 1890's Chicago is to visit! Larson's enthusiasm for assembling a world out of historical documents yields a vivid landscape and his fascination with the time and its people is contagious. The Devil in the White City's paper trail of letters and news articles is even of interest, the lengthy bibliography a good read in and of itself. Larson operates completely transparently, tracing down the source of every last quote and providing his reasoning on the rare occurrence that he deviates from cold fact to make some educated guesses. Everything is either documented or fully justified.

So what is The Devil in the White City, anyway? It's nonfiction, yet it reads like a novel. It reads like a novel, and yet every quote can be traced to a direct source.

It's history, and it turns out that history kicks ass.

Who knew?

No comments: