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The Devil in the White City


... all his stories are decorated with flamboyant draperies, intended by him to strengthen the plausibility of this statements. In talking, he has the appearance of candor, becomes pathetic at times when pathos will serve him best, uttering his words with a quaver in his voice, often accompanied by a moistened eye, then turning quickly with a determined and forceful method of speech, as if indignation or resolution had sprung out of tender memories that has touched his heart.
This is a police detective's description of H. H. Holmes, the masterful liar and serial murderer of Erik Larson's book — one of the devils in his white city. The description comes late in the book, by which time it comes off as a wonderfully perverse joke shared between Larson and you, the reader who has by now come to think of Larson in exactly these terms. Larson is a very slippery and hypnotic liar. Like the guards who mourn when Holmes is executed for his murders, you wish Larson could go on lying to you much longer than he does.

Larson's misdeeds are not serious, and I probably care about them only because of my own struggle to learn the lost details behind The Moonshiner's Dance. Often, I would sell my soul to the Devil to discover the level of detail Larson seems to have for events that took place 35 years before the subject of my own research.

Early in the book, Larson describes the first meeting between Holmes and one of his victims. As if to torment me personally, Larson places the meeting in a music shop in Minneapolis:

Minneapolis was small, somnolent, and full of Swedish and Norwegian farmers as charming as cornstalks. Holmes was handsome, warm, and obviously wealthy, and he lived in Chicago, the most feared and magnetic of cities. Even during their first meeting he touched her; his eyes deposited a bright blue hope. When he left the store that first day, as motes of dust filled the space he left behind, her own life seemed drab beyond endurance. A clock ticked. Something had to change.
A wonderful passage, but ... but DID a clock tick? IS that what the dust did? Did ANY of this really happen? No footnote is provided. It is clear, though, that Larson has studied late 19th-century Chicago much more closely than Minneapolis, which was not "full" of farmers of any description. It was a pretty rough place, and about as densely populated with prostitutes, drunks, businessmen and laborers of all ethnicities as Chicago was. Ask anyone from Lake Wobegon — they'll tell you about Minneapolis.

More substantial stretches of fiction get footnoted as such. Larson describes Holmes' tour, with his wife and sister-in-law, of the Union Stockyards —

Holmes was unmoved; Minnie and Anna were horrified but also strangely thrilled by the efficiency of the carnage.
On the same day, they also saw the 1893 Columbian Exposition, known as the White City —
Minnie and Anna rapidly grew tired. They exited, with relief, onto the terrace over the North Canal and walked into the Court of Honor. Here once again Anna found herself nearly overwhelmed. It was noon by now, the sun directly overhead.
The footnotes acknowledge that the description, while long and detailed and vivid, is entirely bogus, except that it traces the SORT of tour that Chicago residents often gave to visiting relatives.

I love this book, and find the paperback edition's blurbage to be mostly well earned. It is indeed a gripping page-turner, thanks to Larson's use of every tool in the novelist's bag. I have enough interest in urban geography to have taken a half-dozen graduate-level courses in the subject while I was in academia (which Larson seems to detest). Reading The Devil in the White City, I often wished I'd had it in grad school to get a much better feel for this Columbian Exposition that everyone thought was so important. Likewise, I grew up in the Chicago area and often visited the Museum of Science and Industry without ever grasping that it was the last remaining structure of a history-making fair [see Comments]. I wish The Devil in the White City had been published in 1976 and placed in my hands then.

As a developing writer of history, there's a great deal to learn from Larson's work that I haven't often found in the, let us say, "less imaginative" histories I ordinarily read. Now and then, I wanted to slap myself on the forehead and say "Of course!" For example, I know very well what the weather was like on the night of Christmas 1924, when the Victoria Cafe opened in St. Paul, but Erik Larson reminded me that — and how — that weather matters.

The Devil in the White City, like any other measuring device, is useful precisely because it goes too far. You can use it to get a fix on how far you'd like to go in contriving history only because Larson's dial leaves a few more tick marks to the right of your own level. To me, much of the drama in this very engrossing book is in watching as both Holmes and Larson get away with murder, and in following the details of exactly how they succeed so well.