Review: The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson (a grumpy review)

What? You say this post showed up in your reader several weeks ago? I have no idea what you’re talking about.

My friend the Enthusiast refuses to join work book club because he says we read bad things. As proof of this he says “Devil in the White City was big like six years ago. And you’re just reading it now? Come on! You have to keep up with the times!” In fact the reason I didn’t read The Devil in the White City when it was big was that I was worried about that thing, that hype thing that happens where everyone loves a book really really hard so your expectations of it are sky-high and then you read it and you’re like, “…That’s it?”

(This is why all my comments on any post anyone writes these days about maybe wanting to give Patrick Ness a try are like, “OH YAY! But don’t expect too much. THE CHAOS WALKING BOOKS ARE SO GREAT but they aren’t that great, they are basically a big pile of reindeer poop OH MY GOD THEY ARE SO THOUGHT-PROVOKING AND MINDBLOWING except only a bit, really not anything to write home about.” Try it. Mention on a blog post that you’re going to try reading The Knife of Never Letting Go, and the above comment is what you will inevitably get from me.)

So The Devil in the White City is about two guys at the Chicago World’s Fair: Daniel Burnham the architect of it, and Dr. H. H. Holmes, a serial killer operative around the same time. The World’s Fair was very expensive and hard to build. Dr. Holmes killed many people, some of them during World’s Fair times. And he like baked them in an oven. (Ew.)

I thought I wasn’t going to like this because American history mostly bores me (sorry, America!), but it turns out I didn’t like it because I did not find it to be a very good book of history. When I was writing notes for this post, I wrote down “Devil AND the White City ha ha ha,” which was to remind me to make the very scathing remark that a more appropriate title would have been The Devil and the White City, because the White City parts about Burnham’s efforts to make the World’s Fair happen were only fairly tangentially related to the Devil parts about Dr. Holmes killing people. In the event, that…is not as scathing a remark as I would have liked. The two halves of the story are almost wholly unconnected! was the critical point I was trying to make. Both halves are interesting(ish), but there’s no real reason to put them in the same book. If I were in charge of the world, I’d have the author write a really good journal article about both.

Because another problem I had was how relentlessly padded with description the entire book was. Larson never just launches into the events of a given day. He always has to start with all (NB this is a made-up quote), “It was a warm October day as Daniel Burnham crossed the town square to meet with his investors. The sound of horse-drawn carriages on the cobbled Chicago streets almost drowned out the pounding of Burnham’s heart as his broadsheets and architectural plans flapped in the gentle fall breeze.” Blah blah damn dee blah. A teeny bit of this is okay, I guess, but it irritates me. Every time it happened — and it happened a lot — I’d be all, “Oh really. Really, Erik Larson. Did the horse hooves drown out the sound of his heart pounding? You were there to chat with him about this, were you, really?” (This was internal monologue, btw. I did not burst out into cranky soliloquoy on the subway.)

Then there was this other thing that Erik Larson kept doing that drove me crazy, which was this thing, GOD it was annoying, where he would be like, “Later that month, Olmstead fired a junior associate at his firm who had dared to suggest that regular architecture was more sexier to the populace than landscape architecture. The junior associate started his own architecture firm, which quickly grew to three times the size of Olmstead’s. Later he would say that being fired for his sexy-architecture opinions had launched his whole career. That junior associate was Frank Lloyd Wright.” And you basically can see Erik Larson in your head doing that gesture and sound effect to indicate that he has just dropped a bombshell on you, while his orchestra plays a dramatic dun dun DUNNNNNNN noise in the background. The example of this where he introduces the Ferris Wheel into the proceedings spanned more than one chapter. He refers to George Washington Gale Ferris of Ferris Wheels as “the young man from Illinois” like forty times before consenting to admit who the guy actually is. After time three, I wanted to gnaw off my fingers.

I don’t think I did fall victim to the hype thing, however. I never expected to like this book much. At best I mildly hoped not to hate it. Which I didn’t, I guess, but I found it boring and irritating. I don’t like American history, y’all! I don’t know what else to say. I don’t like reading about American history. Oo, except the Black Panthers, they were interesting. And also the Scopes trial. But nothing else.