10 September 2008

The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson

This book is practically required reading for anyone living in Chicago. People have been recommending it to me for ages, but for some reason I never got around to it until last weekend. The first 20 pages or so were absolutely engrossing. The next hundred or so were fantastic beach reading. And then I started to get annoyed. And by the last 80 pages, I was rolling my eyes and waiting for it to be over.

So, here's the thing - there's some fascinating information in this book. The picture it paints of turn of the century Chicago is pretty amazing. It's a really interesting story. Unfortunately, it's not told well. At first it's great, fast-paced and full of meaningful portent, and then you realize that it's appallingly formulaic. Larson, as a writer, is a one-trick pony. He just can't contain himself. He loves cliff-hanger sentences so much that he feels compelled to separate them out from the rest of the paragraph just in case you didn't realize how very important they are. Pay attention! For instance:

(...) Later, he recalled, "I told her I thought he was a bad lot and that she had better have little to do with him and get away from him as soon as possible."
For the time being, at least, she ignored his advice.

The suspense is palpable! What do you think, will she come to a bad end? OF COURSE SHE WILL! That obnoxious tone runs throughout the text. When it's not portending doomy doom, it's gloating over the 20-20 nature of hindsight with uncontained schadenfreude:

Bloom regretted his failure to copyright the tune. The royalties would have run into the millions.

Not that this is an unforgivable literary technique, but Larson wields it with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Every character, every event, no matter how mundane, is given the suspenseful thriller treatment, and as a result, the whole thing becomes ridiculous. Throw in a few moments where the supposedly electrifying link between characters is pathetically tenuous and bam, the text crumples. When the Titanic reappears at the end of the book, you're waiting for Forrest Gump to jog by. 

It's a real pity too, because like I said, the subject matter is really fascinating. Turn of the century America, especially in a big city, is fascinating enough, but even if you don't live in Chicago, the events surrounding the World Fair and the way they relate to the formation of American identity is worth knowing more about. And serial killers are pretty generally intriguing. So if you think you can stomach the ridiculous writing and you're seriously curious about the topic, check it out. But don't expect the book itself to provide anything of worth besides sheer facts. While Larson is certainly to be commended for the volume of research he did to create this book, he has disappointingly little insight or reflection on what he's turned up. 

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