I’m not sure I’ve mentioned it in any previous CBR reviews, but I’m not really into non-fiction. For me, reading is an escape from reality; though many novels I’ve read and enjoyed don’t always unfold with blissful endings, grand gestures or incredible scenery, I still find myself completely submerged in another world when I’m reading. I know it sounds cheesy and clichéd but I really do like exploring other worlds and life experiences from the comfort of my own couch. This really doesn’t have a lot to do with what I think about The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, but I think it does speak to why I may not have been able to enjoy this book as much as others. I joined a book club last year to make me read things I would never normally read and for the most part it’s been successful, though there have been some real stinkers (yes, I’m talking about you Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close). I don’t mean to imply that Larson’s book on Chicago in the late 19th century is one of the stinkers. I just didn’t really love it either.
Devil tells two stories, both true. The first is of how Chicago first won, and then managed to build, the 1893 World’s Fair. The second, far more interesting tale is about a man named H.H. Holmes – a serial killer stalking his prey in and around the same fair. Perhaps this says something about me as a person (or the rest of the ladies in my book club as well since they agreed with me), but the pages that I looked forward to most were those about Holmes. Serial killers fascinate me – they always have. Give me anything on Ted Bundy, Zodiac, Manson, or Jack the Ripper and I’m hooked. So it shocked me I’d never even heard of this guy. The way in which he set out for Chicago with the intent to satisfy his murderous urges, and planned his crimes so well so as to almost completely get away with it would be almost awe-inspiring if the crimes themselves weren’t so gruesome. Granted, this was the 19th century; he couldn’t have gone undetected for so long today, or at least that’s how I like to think anyway. Still – his prowess at charm and deception is prodigious, so chapters devoted to Holmes are incredibly gripping and engaging.
It’s when we have to read pages and pages of descriptions of meetings to make decisions to make committees to decide on every detail of the fair itself that I struggle. Don’t misunderstand. Daniel Burnham (the lead architect running the show) and his compatriots (including some famous names that I myself didn’t recognize, with the exception of Frederick Law Olmstead – designer of Central Park and my home state’s famous Biltmore Estate grounds) go through some fascinating trials and tribulations, and end up giving America a renewed interest in architecture and national pride. It’s amazing how in the short span of less than two full years, an entire miniature city was built in the middle of what was at the time basically a desolate wasteland. Where I think Larson fails is in HOW MANY DETAILS he includes. I think that if I read one more quote from someone’s letter, or one more description of what committee was arguing with what architect about whatever subject, I might have just stopped reading entirely. The discussions on the Burnham/World’s Fair story were too lengthy and too detailed. I often found myself thumbing ahead to see how long it would be before I could get to the good stuff – the next murder.
This isn’t to say that the gist of the story of the World’s Fair isn’t interesting. I would love to have watched a mini-series of documentaries on PBS about it. I just think that reading these parts of the book sometimes felt like I imagine watching CSPAN feels. NO one wants to sit in on the way our government “works” (notice the quotes – I use that term in the loosest sense when referencing the US government). The Chicago World’s Fair was run much like the US government, so really I found these sections to be really boring.
The book does speed up some once the fair actually opens. Hearing about the trials of assembling the world’s first Ferris wheel and how frightening it must have been for the first riders was quite entertaining. Hearing about Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show was equally enjoyable. Having real legends peppered throughout the story of this architect most people haven’t heard of helps pep the reader up after struggling through the first part. The 19th century has always been one of my favorite time periods to read about, so I appreciated that in this book as well.
The other major fault I had with Larson’s writing is his tendency toward previewing later parts of the story and then just jumping right back to where he’d left off. He often would refer briefly to a later event that would either be catastrophic to the fair or a particular person and then just leave it at one sentence, no explanation. It seemed like he was trying to create excitement or anticipation when really it just frustrated me. Why would it later become significant that Mayor Harrison felt compelled to keep Prendergast’s letters? If you don’t want to tell me now just don’t mention it. It jars the reader out of the story, and especially in the case of the parts about the fair, was extra descriptions in an already-wordy, overlong text. Most examples of this that I remember are spoiler-y so you’ll just have to either take my word for it, or find out if you read this one. I will say that I liked the post-fair section of the book. Even the chapters that weren’t devoted to Holmes were more intriguing than normal. The chase by Detective Geyer is actually quite thrilling.
This book is definitely something worth reading, but be warned that it’s not a fast one, nor is it as intriguing and gripping as its popularity or jacket quotes would have you believe. I think history buffs that are used to reading a lot of non-fiction might be happier with the non-Holmes parts than I, or perhaps architecture enthusiasts. The rest of us have to be satisfied with the all-too-infrequently-placed chapters on the thrilling case of Dr. H.H. Holmes.