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What I Think: Review of Erik Larson's Devil in the White City


Recently, I read Erik Larson's Devil in the White City, which intertwines two separate plot lines: one about the architects who made the 1893 Chicago's World Fair possible, and the other about "America's First Serial Killer," Dr. H. H. Holmes.

I'd first heard about H.H. Holmes when I read Caleb Carr's The Alienist, in which the narrator's grandmother is deathly afraid that Dr. Holmes will escape before he is hung and kill her. A fictional novel is an odd place to first discover a bit of American true crime, but sometimes, information comes to you in odd ways! I've never read much non-fiction (outside of the required textbooks and theory articles in school), but this book convinced me that I've left an entire genre neglected for far too long.

When I checked out Devil in the White City from the library, the librarian told me it read just like fiction, even though the book is 100% true and meticulously researched.

He wasn't kidding. I read the entire thing over just two days--I couldn't find out what happened fast enough. Larson writes in an easy, often humorous style, and thus, the book is accessible to pretty much any reader.

While I originally picked up the book because of the H.H. Holmes link, I found myself quickly becoming interested in the seemingly impossible task set before the architects of the Colombian World Fair (so named as in honor of Christopher Columbus' 500th anniversary of the discovery of the New World).

These two seemingly unrelated portions of American history are linked by their collective location--Chicago--and the time period--the 1893 Fair. Holmes actually capitalized on the overwhelming success of the fair by offering boarding house rooms for rent just a few miles from the fairgrounds, and many of his visitors didn't check out.

My complaints about this book are few. The thing that bothered me the most was the desire of the author to occasionally wax poetic on minutiae--menus of the architects' meetings, lists of materials required to complete the World Fair exhibitions, etc. While Larson was trying to show the scope of the building efforts, the inclusion of such slowed down the otherwise entertaining and compelling narrative.

Another complaint: while the book (for the most part) rotated from H.H. Holmes chapter to World Fair chapter, there were instances where there were two or three World Fair chapters back-to-back. I couldn't figure out if this was because Larson was more interested in the World Fair portion of the book, or if he didn't think he had enough material on Holmes to include an equal number of chapters on him.

My final critique? There just weren't enough pictures!

While I may sound like a child who has had to make the jump from picture books to chapter books, I am a visual learner, and found myself searching the internet as I read for a visual portrayal of a building or person being described in the text. Many non-fiction books have a section in the middle of photographs, and I believe this book would have greatly benefited by such an insert.

That being said, the documentary "H.H. Holmes: America's First Serial Killer" provided me with those visual bits of information that helped to fill the holes left from reading the book. Much of the same ground is covered as in the Holmes portions of the Devil in the White City, but hearing the information at the same time as an old photograph was being shown heightened the learning experience for me. If you have Netflix, there is an instant watch version of this film; you might be able to find a copy at your local library as well.

Definitely a must read!

What I Think: Review of Patrick McGrath's The Grotesque

*one of my ongoing series of blog posts that looks at the books I read*

One of my absolutely favorite twentieth-century British books is Patrick McGrath's Spider, which is suspenseful, well-written and shocking. Based on my experience with this book, I decided to branch out into other McGrath novels, and I was delighted to find The Grotesque (his very first novel) in Ed's Editions (an amazing used bookstore that you MUST visit if you live in or visit Columbia, SC).

I had a new McGrath, which was good, but I'd also bought about 8 other books, which was bad because The Grotesque got shuffled to the bottom of my books pile. I put it by my bedstand, where many of my books come and go at times, but this one stayed. And stayed. And stayed. It seemed that I would read about ten pages, get distracted and put the book down for another week. Usually, I'm a voracious reader that can finish an "easy" book (a Michael Crichton, James Patterson, etc.) in a matter of hours if I put my mind to it (I read fast more out of necessity than anything else...going to English grad school kind of drills it into you). The Grotesque topped out at around 200 pages, which would normally fall into the "easy" category for me, yet it was taking weeks and weeks and weeks for me to get through it. Why?

I was originally very excited about this particular title because 1) the author and 2) the title. The grotesque--as in the literary element--is found throughout the Gothic movement, my favorite of all favorites and the topic of my masters thesis. The story line caught my eye, too: eccentric English gentleman becomes completely handicapped as a result of a terrible accident, and then ponders the mysterious disappearance (and, as we discover later, death) of his daughter's suitor. The narrator is convinced that the butler is behind all of the nefarious activities...but could it really be that the pre-accident gentleman is the true culprit?

This book is what I consider "quiet"--there aren't any major surprises or super gory scenes. If this was made into a movie, it would be moody and dramatic with enough ambiguity at the end to keep the audience guessing. Quiet books aren't always bad; in fact, some of them can be very, very good (see The Time Traveler's Wife and Atonement). This book seemed to try to hard to be clever, but, in truth, much of it had already been done. The who-dun-it aspect was never emphasized enough for me, and honestly, the narrator protested his innocence a bit much to truly make the ending ambiguous. McGrath is a skilled writer, but this novel doesn't come close to the chilling atmosphere and richly painted characters of his later works like Spider or Asylum.

If you like this, I would recommend:

  • Peter Ackroyd, Hawksmoor
  • Patrick McGrath, Spider
  • Patrick McGrath, Asylum
  • Iain M. Banks, The Wasp Factory