Sunday, January 6, 2013

Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

After reading this blog for many years, I have finally decided to post now that I am finally reading non-legal books.  Diving in to real reading after this many years inevitably means I am reading books everybody else read 5 years ago.  Enter Devil in the White City, which, as far as I can tell, has already been blogged about twice here (and probably read by everyone else).  Re-read Jim and Billy's posts for a detailed analysis of the plot, but for my purposes, there are three pillars of plot in this book: 1) the rise of industrial Chicago; 2) the 1893 World's Fair; and 3) MURDER.

I am new to the Fifty Books Project and cheated just a bit.  I mostly read this book at the end of last year (I am a slow reader, there's no way I'm getting to 50...).   I bring this up because there was a contemporary event which actually enhanced Larson's narrative for me: Sandy Hook. Consider the book's introduction of its all-important setting:

Nothing like the Whitechapel killings had occurred. Jack the Ripper's five-murder spree in 1888 had defied explanation and captivated readers throughout America, who believed such a thing could not happen in their own hometowns. But things were changing. Everywhere one looked the boundary between the moral and the wicked seemed to be degrading. Elizabeth Cady Stanton argued in favor of divorce. Clarence Darrow advocated free love. A young woman named Borden killed her parents.

Enter a deranged H.H. Holmes to take advantage of a city in the midst of massive social and, more importantly, economic change.  This change, especially Chicago's meteoric economic growth, is the true protagonist of this book.   In the clearest example of juxtaposition I have seen since Romeo and Juliet, Larson elaborates on twin effects of Chicago's massive industrialization:   freedom and isolation. Considering H.H. Holmes' penchant for killing single women, the below sentence, which was ostensibly used to describe Chicago's  unprecedented population growth,  demonstrates the haunting way Larson uses setting to foreshadow evil:

Never before in civilization have such numbers of young girls been suddenly released from the protection of the home and permitted to walk unattended upon the city streets and to work under alien roofs."

All of Larson's seemingly glowing descriptions of "the white city" and the wonders of industrialism have an alternate (and understated) application to H.H. Holmes. Devil in the White City is about change: Change creates wonders like the World's Fair and Chicago's new skyscape, but it also creates conditions for the horror of Jack the Ripper and H.H. Holmes.  I may have missed this point (and simply enjoyed the book's great writing and interesting facts) if it weren't for Sandy Hook. Its hard to miss the similarities.  We are obviously living amongst change (no need to elaborate as I write on an internet based blog); and there is new type of evil in the world.  Are the shooters of Columbine/Aurora/Sandy Hook the Jack the Ripper/H.H. Holmes of our age? Maybe.  In any event, it's a good book.


Christopher said...

Glad to have you, Kunal! I think you missed part of a sentence after the first quotation.

Brent Waggoner said...

Awesome, excited to have a new reviewer. Welcome, Kunal!

Christopher said...

On a more substantive note: It seems logical to me that violence would occur in times of great change. But how does one quantify change? Are we really in a period of change, or is that something that every generation claims about itself?

Also, if I recall correctly, aren't homicide rates falling overall? How does that square with such a thesis?

Kunal Choksi said...

Chris you're right about homicides and I guess to flesh out my point a little more - its not about the amount of crime, but the kind of crime. Jack the Ripper and HH Holmes shocked the world because deranged, serial murders had no occurred before. In the same way Sandy Hook and its ilk have captured our attention. I recently read that there have been 500 shooting deaths since Sandy Hook - obviously there was something about that kind of murder that was shocking.

I agree with your first point. There is a sort of heisenbergian uncertainty conundrum with any claim of living in change time. But that's what this book was all about: trying to capture a moment in time that epitomized gradual long-term change in Chicago - world's fair and Holmes. I think a better statement would be that the world is constantly changing , but there are certain moments in time that signify that change. And (according to Larson) one of those moments could be the shocking types of murder.

Also formatting this stuff is hard. I'll edit what I missed.