The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed AmericaThe Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Larson’s exhaustive recounting of the planning, building and execution of the 1893 World’s Fair is a deeply problematic book. It opens with Larson talking about two unnamed men; praising their unmatched skills in their chosen activities. One, naturally, is Burnham, the architect who choreographed the great dance that was the creation of the World’s Fair. The other is serial killer H H Holmes. It takes a special kind of person to praise the abilities of a murderer. Things do not improve from there. Chapters are florid with details. When Larson is writing about the fair, it’s not a problem. However. Each alternating chapter covers Holmes’ cruel machinations in extensive detail. Excessively gruesome detail. I can’t put enough warnings in here about how graphic it is. Worse is the way Larson writes about it. He seems to revel in the violence. The plotting. As though he idolizes Holmes more than the people who built this remarkable Fair in the face of well-nigh insurmountable odds. And on top of all that – as if that wasn’t bad enough – the language Larson chooses tends to dehumanize and objectify Holmes’ victims. It’s not clear whether this is a misguided attempt to present Holmes’ state of mind, or Larson just isn’t aware of how his choice of language is representing the dead. The numerous dead. Holmes gets included in this story in the first place because Larson contends that he uses the Fair to lure people to their deaths, but had the Fair not taken place Holmes would have been killing anyways. The Fair and Holmes were both in Chicago at the same time, but that is all they share, and I was deeply troubled by Larson’s attempts to represent Holmes’ heartless activities as on par with the incredible achievements of the architects and engineers who created a truly unparalleled exhibition of beauty and technological advancement. The Devil in the White City would have been a much stronger work without those parts.

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