Wednesday, October 29, 2014
Review: The Devil in the White City Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair That Changed America
The Devil in the White City Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
What did I just read? I picked it up expecting a true crime story that happened at the World's Fair in Chicago. That story is there, but is just a small part of this rambling work. I enjoyed the lush, engaging writing. The narration was beautiful, just perfect for the text.
The text though... I now know a whole lot about the architects involved in the fair, the building of the fair, the lives of some of the people involved in the fair, and a bit about the late Victorian politics of Chicago. I've learned a lot about late 19th century police investigations. Mr. Larson has done a lot of excellent primary source research and presented the information remarkably well. The book has citations to his sources, a feature that always endears me to an author.
I've also learned that an author, at least this author, can get away with constructing a whole lot of artificial cliff hangers. It's one thing to end a chapter at a tense point in the action. It's quite another to leave a gaping hole in the information presented for no reason beyond making the reader keep going to find the missing piece.
From the author's afterward it seems that Mr. Larson sees some kind of cohesion in this book. I cannot tell you what that is. I hesitate to even refer to this book as a "narrative". While there is excellent storytelling, the stories sometimes have very tenuous connections. Facts are arranged prettily, often (but not always) chronologically, but I have no idea what this book is really about. The architects were not the only creative force at work in making the fair happen - why focus on them? If the serial killer was the center of the book, why did the minutia of building the fair get so much more page time?
I want to like this work more than I actually do - it has so much going for it. I can't get past the lack of narrative or thematic through-line.
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