2/52 books of 2019: Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

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I’m really glad that I didn’t stipulate needing to have necessarily started the novel in order for it to count when I committed to the 52 books challenge. I’m going to get this out of the way early: Devil in the White City is taxing on the brain, and I don’t mean this in a negative way. Like most historical accounts, this is a very content heavy book. Where I usually fly through fiction, I was reading at a much slower pace to comprehend all the information that was being thrown at me. If not for this challenge, I probably would’ve taken another leisurely two years to finish the book.

I’ve never really been drawn in by the H.H. Holmes mythos – like most people, he isn’t the first person I think about when I think about true crime. In some ways I think his crimes were too horrific to be sensationalised by the media. They go past the point of being just the right level of horrifying and err more on the side of making me feel sick in my tum tum. I probably wouldn’t have picked this book if not for both Last Podcast on the Leftand My Favourite Murder raving about it. Ironically, despite my love of true crime, it was actually learning about the development of the Chicago World Fair that really sucked me into this story. I didn’t know I needed to know that much about Chicago soil, but I enjoyed learning about it none the less.

Ultimately, to me this isn’t really a book about either of the main male figures – H.H. Holmes and Daniel Hudson Burnham – in isolation. I don’t really think it’s even a book about what they achieved. Rather, I think this is a book about how consumerism and greed came to grip a nation in the American century (if you subscribe to the British century being the 1800s and the American century being the 1900s). It’s an ode to the great American past time of dreams and greed, and violence.

No facet of the American dream cannot exist in isolation. In order to have achieved the American dream, you must have fallen victim to its less desirable qualities.  Devil in the White City is an account of the different faces of the American psycho – the incessant need to destroy and rebuild, and the draw of greed, fame, and infamy alike. Holmes and Burnham are pitted against each other as representative of the American dream. Where Holmes represents the greed, violence, and mania that has plagued American identity, in turn Burnham represents the reach for glory, fame, and accomplishment.

Continuing on with my, “everything comes back to Gatsby” theory of American literature, it is easy to see the circumstances in which characters like Jay Gatsby were created. Devil in the White City is an account of the lengths a man will go to in order to achieve their dreams – whether that is to run the most successful world fair, or to create a murder hotel to kill young women in. Maybe, after all is said and done, this is what makes it so engaging. It is in our nature to need to succeed, and maybe we’re always doomed to be drawn in and revolted by the lengths people will go to achieve their dreams.

Would I recommend you read this book? Well, it really depends. Do you have a lot of time on your hands? Are you a patient person? Do you think you could sit through hundreds of pages explaining how the heating system was used in the world fair, not to mention the pages all about the soil types of Chicago, and still find it exhilarating? If you answered yes to these questions, I’d recommend reading it. If not, then I’d probably just wait for the movie or listen to a podcast series about it. I recommend the Last Podcast treatment.

On a final note, here are a few of the fun things I learned from this book: Pabst got the blue ribbon from the Chicago World Fair, there was one case of “extreme flatulence” recorded as an ailment resulting from the fair, and the fair was host to the largest Ferris wheel built to date at the time. Most people assumed it was going to result in tragedy.