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Choose Your Own Advent, Day 21: The Devil in the White City

December 21st, 2016 | Posted by Philip J Reed in books | Choose Your Own Advent

The Devil in the White City, Erik LarsonChoose Your Own Advent is a yuletide celebration of literacy. We’ll spotlight a different novel every day until Christmas, hopefully helping you find one you’d like to read in the new year.

Title: The Devil in the White City
Author: Erik Larson
Year: 2003

It’s rare that I read a recent novel, unless it’s been written by an author I already love. I understand that this is both massively unfair and foolish, but…

I don’t know. I know that I’ll only be able to read some finite number of books before I die. Every choice of book I made, I’m choosing not to read literally millions of others. And this worries me. There’s not time enough to read everything, and when you add in the fact that there are bound to be (and have certainly been) books I’d like to re-read, the number of books I’ll ever possibly get to dwindles further.

So I read older books, almost exclusively. I do this because time is an excellent curator. Something still in print after a hundred years is likely worth reading, and more likely at least of some merit. The older a book is the more likely a critical consensus will have been reached. The more likely it’s entered the cultural lexicon and I can have some indication of whether or not I’ll enjoy it before I pick it up. The more likely somebody I know has read it and might give me some indication of whether or not it’ll mean anything to me.

The Devil in the White City, though, is just a book that interested me. I rolled the dice. It was an investment of time I’ve already convinced myself I do not have.

And it was one of the most riveting, fascinating novels I’d read in a long time.

I’ll circumvent any concerns about this not being fiction up front. It is fiction. Period. It’s based on true events, it features (as far as I can tell) exclusively characters who actually existed, it’s the product of incredible amounts of meticulous research. Fine.

Yes.

But it’s a novel. It’s the product of an author’s imagination, however near to reality that imagination preferred to hew.

Erik Larson necessarily must fill in the gaps. Must structure this dual history as a narrative. Must choose when to break chapters, which details to focus on, which events to gloss over. He must decide which tragedies will be described most horrifically, and which triumphs are most worthy of celebration. He must choose where to begin, where to end, how much to share and when to share it.

With The Devil in the White City he’s providing a necessary, overdue, and incredibly helpful historical narrative…but he’s also providing a novel.

And he’s providing one hell of a good novel.

It’s a page-turner. It’s deeply interesting. It’s enriching. And it’s terrifying.

See, America has the odd tendency to ignore its atrocities. To pretend that things are not as bad as they actually are. To shrug off some of the most heinous acts imaginable, to which our name should be rightfully attached. For instance, you’ll see in Germany a largely respectful, solemn acknowledgement of its immensely wrongful behavior during World War II. You won’t see in America a comparable regret for dropping atomic bombs on innocent civilians in Japan.

A similar correlation can be seen in The Devil in the White City. We all know about Jack the Ripper, because England wasn’t silent about it. They weren’t proud that a madman was on the loose, gorily murdering prostitutes, but they were never secretive about the tragedies that unfolded. Which is why this novel is so chilling: we had our own Jack the Ripper here in America. Only he was even worse. And we hushed it up. Refused to speak of it. Never educated anybody as to the dangers. Kept it just quiet enough that it could, easily, happen again. We deliberately forgot our own warnings, and pretended it never happened.

For roughly half of its pages, The Devil in the White City is the largely factual account of H. H. Holmes, a charming psychopath who builds a hotel full of secret passages, gas jets, torture chambers, and other terrifying things you’ve only ever seen in horror films. The difference is that this actually happened. In real life. To real victims. Holmes was an actual serial killer, one of the worst in American history. And yet, before this book, he was almost entirely unknown to anyone other than crime aficionados.

He was a true and mortifying American horror story, but, for whatever reason, he was never more than a footnote, overshadowed, as he was, by something parallel that we preferred to discuss instead: the 1893 World’s Fair.

That’s the other half of the book: architect Daniel Burnham and his team of engineers, artists, planners, marketers, cultural experts, and many more working together to bring the greatest event in history to life. Not just in America, but in Chicago.

I have a good friend who grew up in Chicago, and she told me that she skimmed through most of Burnham’s chapters in the book. It didn’t hold her interest as much as Holmes’ did. I enjoyed these sections, however. They were important to the story, of course, and they framed the historical context for what we were reading, but I also loved the real-life irony of a grand celebration that provided a murderer with a bottomless well of anonymous victims. Burnham worked tirelessly to build a fair so impressive that people would journey to it from around the world.

They did.

And Holmes may have murdered as many as 200 of them, who never journeyed home again.

In many ways, the World’s Fair was a triumph. It was a social triumph, for sure. It was debatably a triumph of culture as well. It was a triumph of planning and of constant action.

But it also invited a tragedy.

One we’d prefer not to speak about.

We focus in our history on those who left the World’s Fair with a smile on their face. We ignore those who never left at all. We ask everyone to focus on the fireworks and the music and the food. We ignore the adjacent, gruesome crime scene.

America isn’t responsible for the crimes of H. H. Holmes. It’s only responsible for keeping them quiet. For refusing to condemn them. For making it known that, for a while at least, this country might allow you to get away with murder.

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