Wednesday, January 04, 2017

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

So, a week ago, I wrote the following about The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madnsss at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson:

There was audible gasping at my last book club meeting when I mentioned that I had not read this book. Apparently when you live this close to Chicago, it's required reading. Who knew? I'm on a true crime kick right now anyway, so I think this will fit in nicely with my current pop culture intake.

And today I'm going to tell you that I don't quite understand WHAT this book is or why there were so many gasps. I have some beefs with this book.  There are two main issues I see.

First, WTF genre is this?  Someone in Goodreads called in narrative/creative nonfiction, but isn't nonfiction supposed to be fact-based?  I don't want to get into a debate about what's "truth" and what's "interpretation of truth" here (heaven knows I get a lot of that sitting around the dinner table with my smarter than me husband), but Larson writes a lot of things, with footnotes and a long bibliography, that just can't be proven.  A lot of it is just pure speculation - intelligent speculation with a lot of research to back it up, of course, but I just can't go around believing anything he writes.  So it's like super accurate historical fiction with footnotes?  I dunno. I found the whole thing puzzling from an academic rigor standpoint.

Probably more importantly, this book has a bit of an identity crisis. There are about half a dozen different storylines going on and they don't actually intersect much.  The two main storylines are about the 1893 Chicago World's Fair and the notorious serial killer H.H. Holmes who used the fair as a way to recruit victims. There are additional plots involving the Chicago mayor and his assassin, but let's pretend those don't exist because Larson really tried to.  Anyway, is this a true crime thriller about a psychopath who preyed on vulnerable women and children or is it a celebration of civic pride and midwestern heartiness that allowed this theretofore elaborate event and construction project to be completed despite many setbacks and hurdles?  As it stands, the book does neither particularly well. I think he should have focused on one or the other, cut that title in half, and really done a deep dive. 

But I did learn a lot, so there's that. Here's a round-up of some of the more intriguing things I learned.

1) Mickey Finn was the manager of the Lone Star Saloon and Palm Garden Restaurant in Chicago from 1896 - 1903 and he used "knockout drops" on his customers to incapacitate and rob them.  This is probably the origin of the term "slipping someone a mickey."

2) Diamond Jim Brady was a businessman, financier, and philanthropist who had a longtime relationship with Lillian Russell, an actress and singer known for her beauty and style, as well as her talent. I like this couple because apparently they really bonded over a shared love of food.  I looked up information on lots of Gilded Age figures during this book: George Westinghouse, Ignance Paderewski, Philip Armour, Elias Disney, Henry Watterson, Katherine Clemmons and Chauncey M. Depew to name just a few.

3) The Pledge of Allegiance was written by Francis Bellamy who wrote for a magazine called Youth's Companion.  This publication supported what was called the schoolhouse flag movement, at attempt to make sure all schools had Old Glory flying somewhere on site.  He wrote the Pledge for kids to say on the opening day of the World's Fair.  His motives for writing it were ensure that immigrants and not quite patriotic Americans would be inculcated against radicalism and subversion.  Gotta brainwash the young early.

4) Words I had to look up: catalfaque, factotum, slipperlick, janissary, calumny, and writ of replevin. 

Don't ever say I hoard knowledge.


  1. Remember the book The Lifespan of a Fact? Basically the whole argument behind that book is the difference between journalism and creative non-fiction and the repercussions of embellishing the truth when people think you have all the facts. This book should not really be included in non-fiction, the same way it is debatable whether Gabriel Garcia Marquez's book News from a Kidnapping should be labelled a memoir when it isn't his own and he has to speculate a lot; whether Abe Akira's short story "Peaches" is fiction because it's about his true memories, even though he knows they are false memories; why every single person should read Lying by Lauren Slater because it is the most awesome memoir about memory in existence.

    Anyway, you said you didn't want a debate about creative non-fiction.

    And I don't know what any one of those words in the final paragraph mean. :)

  2. I think the genre could be called non-fiction storytelling. Larsson relies on primary and secondary sources for as far as they take him, and those records go cold at various points in the story. I thought he was careful to point out supposition when he took that route. He has done similar work on the sinking of the Lusitania ("Dark Wake") and the early days of Nazi Germany ("Midnight in the Garden of Beasts"). All are as well-researched as he can, but there are always limits on what is known about a particular event. I wouldn't call it "history", as I think of that term as an academic exercise, whereas his gift is for spinning a yarn.

  3. Yeah, I guess I see that it's more about the story. I guess I just don't think it should have been shelved in nonfiction. But it doesn't really matter - I don't think Larson and I mesh that well.


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