Thursday, 31 May 2012

Delicious (Historical) Death: The Devil in the White City

Another day, another book about historical crime. This time it's the turn of fact instead of fiction, and the Victorians instead of the Tudors: I'm reviewing The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson.

The Devil in the White City is set in Chicago, a place where I spent a lot of time as a child watching chicks get born in the Museum of Science and Industry. And that story is even vaguely relevant to today's review. The book's chosen moment is the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, which was very important for America and History and so on, and directly led to the Museum of Science and Industry being built, allowing me 100 years later to stand and watch chicks get born while my mother and grandmother failed to get me at all interested in any of the other exhibits.

It was also important for a man called H. H. Holmes. This charming human being decided that the World's Fair was the perfect opportunity for him to build a murder hotel and kill large numbers of young women, and so he did, while everyone around him totally failed to notice that anything shifty was going on.

And that, essentially, is the story told by this book. It's a gallop through two parallel stories, the creation of the World's Fair by visionary architect Daniel Burnham, and the criminal rise and fall of visionary murderer H. H. Holmes. The World's Fair happens (good!) and people get murdered (bad!). The end.

The Devil in the White City has at least a tenuous link to reality, in that all the things in it did actually happen, but at the same time it reads like particularly ridiculous and racy fiction written by someone who's got a strong sense of a good story but a very bad idea of how to put that story into words. It is the true-crime equivalent of really seductive but bad quality junk food: a double-chocolate whipped-cream Tesco Value cake in novel form.

My feelings on the subject of populist versus scholarly historical writing are sort of contradictory. While on the one hand I believe fervently that history is extremely interesting and should be written about like the crazy epic blockbuster it is, I also believe that bad writing - and bad research - makes the gods weep.

In this case, the research is there, but the writing's just not up to it. Larson can, at least, string a sentence together, but that's the least of his problems. Knowing that he is writing A FUN BOOK FOR NORMAL PEOPLE seems to have sent him off his head with self-importance, and The Devil in the White City is comically over-egged, filled with sparkling 'scene-setting' turds like
As [Holmes] moved through the station, the glances of young women fell around him like wind-blown petals
his eyes deposited a bright blue hope.
How I wish my eyes shed coloured emotion. Alas! All they do is allow me to see.

This is the moustache of a murderer
I admit, I do perversely enjoy this kind of thing. Bad writing can be delicious (there's my cake metaphor again), and as bad writing goes, this one's a winner. It's possible to ignore it and focus on the story, but if you do choose to be cruel (and I did) you're in for many hours of riotous amusement of the sort not at all intended by Larson.

On to the content. Larson obviously means Holmes to be the dark side of Burnham - Burnham's building the White City while Holmes is building the black; they both have blue eyes but one has the blue eyes OF A KILLER, etc, etc - but he's not really good enough to pull the comparison off, and so the book just ends up being about two very interesting and not particularly connected lives. And that's fine. History is amazing enough (and awful enough) to carry this one on its own. Fires, Ferris Wheels, belly dancers, Buffalo Bill, tornadoes and torture chambers all make starring appearances as everything that could go wrong for the Fair does, and everything that could go wrong for Holmes... doesn't, and the whole thing is rounded off with a nice cross-country manhunt for your reading pleasure.

There are also lots of fun Facts About the World's Fair to pick up for future use at boring parties. Did you know, for example, that it brought belly dancers to America for the first time, that Walt Disney's father worked on it and that it was the reason the Pledge of Allegience, the Ferris Wheel and that annoying snake charming music were invented? Well, now you do. See what this book has given you already!

I can't be a total snob about this. I can absolutely see why The Devil in the White City has sold all the copies it has - it's completely addictive reading, historically fascinating and presented in a way that's gloriously awful. It's cake! Delicious historical murder cake! And I ate it all. Oops.

Despite the best efforts of history, though, this gets 2.5 stars as a form of post-binge guilt, and also for that sentence about the petals.

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