Monday, December 18, 2017

the devil in the white city

One night (during a particularly long Netflix binge) I decided to watch H.H. Holmes: America's First Serial Killer. This is a documentary about Herman Webster Mudgett who went on a secretive killing spree under his alias, Dr. Henry Howard Holmes. The entire time I watched this documentary, I was riveted. I had never heard of Holmes before. Which was travesty since I was grew in the Chicagoland area and posited myself as an authority on local bizarre histories.

So when I happened onto the book The Devil in the White City, I picked it up right away. And boy am I glad I did!

Photo Courtesy: brockpress.com
The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson is really two narratives happening at the same time. Written in a style that feels authentic for the timeline. At moments his embellishments can feel contrived and stretched. However, much of what he has written was extracted, not just from news reports but from diaries and journals.

One narrative follows the inner workings and details that surrounding the 1893 World's Fair (The White City). The other follows the killings that were happening simultaneously less than five miles away in H.H. Holmes's "Murder Castle".

This book is somewhere in-between nonfiction and great story telling. A weaving of joyous haunting that seems to encapsulate all the "shock and awe"of the time. But, I think that this is both a blessing and a curse. A reader who likes their history "cut and dry" might not like the peppering of fiction. Whereas. the reader that isn't into history might feel a put off by all the insertions and fun-facts. 

For me, this is what made the book. The mashing of characters (Buffalo Bill, Archduke Francis Ferdinand, Thomas Edison and others) and flavors of the past (the Gilded age's steel and steam with a touch of electricity).  I LOVED it! 

If I had to (and I do for the purposes of writing this blog), I would pick one excerpt from the book that somehow encapsulates it was written. It shows the underlining juxtaposition that Larson was seemingly going for when writing his two narratives. It connects the White City on the edge of Lake Michigan and the ambiance of thematic death.
“Beneath the stars the lake lay dark and sombre," Stead wrote, "but on its shores gleamed and glowed in golden radiance the ivory city, beautiful as a poet's dream, silent as a city of the dead.”  
― Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America
If you liked that quote, then I do believe you'll like the book. 

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