Book Chat 6: Eric Larson/The Devil in the White City
Not long after Jack the Ripper haunted the ill-lit streets of 1888 London, H.H. Holmes (born Herman Webster Mudgett) dispatched somewhere between 27 and 200 people, mostly single young women, in the churning new metropolis of Chicago; many of the murders occurred during (and exploited) the city's finest moment, the World's Fair of 1893. Larson's history is a novelistic yet wholly factual account of the fair and the mass murderer who lurked within it.
Nominated for the National Book Award, nonfiction, 2003.
Evil Editor said... May I begin by nominating this Holmes guy for worst person ever to exist?
Kiersten said... Seconded. Thirded. I can't tell you the things I thought they should have done to him. My husband was rather shocked at my reaction. I was just glad his neck didn't snap and he had to choke to death.
Robin S. said... Oh yeah, that Holmes guy was creepy, it seemed, from birth, from before he was Holmes.
freddie said... YES, EE!!!!!! Talk about a sucky existence. And to think he lived in Chicago. Where we're, of course, not at all familiar with violence.
BuffySquirrel said... can't be worse than hitler, that guy in serbia whose name escapes me, stalin, harold shipman, the dutch guy who would be another harold shipman if killing old people didn't happen to be legal there, etc etc etc
Kiersten said... I don't know, Buffy--they all killed for a purpose. Which doesn't justify it, but there was a point. This guy...killing was the point.
BuffySquirrel said... what was shipman's purpose then?
Evil Editor said... If he were in charge of a country he would have done what all those guys did. Maybe worse.
freddie said... Yes, it's true who buffy mentions killed a lot more people. But they seem like people who killed for mere gain in one way or another. Holmes was someone who LIVED to kill. He even said he felt compelled to do it in the same way a poet feels compelled to sing. (I'm paraphrasing.) But I personally felt Larson got carried away with the architecture stuff.
BuffySquirrel said... well, apparently nobody here has heard of shipman
sylvia said... I've heard of Shipman! Hell, I lived in Shipman's catchment area :)
BuffySquirrel said... shipman was a GP who murdered 100-200 people. his (mostly) elderly (mostly) female patients kept dying and there was talk but nothing was done for years and years and years. the exact death count isn't known because not everybody agreed to exhumations of possible victims
sylvia said... http://www.amazon.co.uk/Prescription-Murder-Story-Harold-Shipman/dp/0751529982/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1219962551&sr=1-3
freddie said... I remember something about this.
BuffySquirrel said... was a big story for a while
Kiersten said... Hrmm...I wonder if people with this type of disorder are attracted to medicine...because there have been a lot of those, it seems.
Evil Editor said... There's something about Holmes that makes him seem worse. The way his victims were young women setting out on their own, trying to make it in tough times, and then they run into this clown.
BuffySquirrel said... but the public prefer serial killers to be infamous, then caught....oh, yeah, the murders of young women are always sexier :D
Evil Editor [Possibly it's the author: tell me Holmes killed 100 people, it's a number. Show me his death hotel and put me in the place of the women, and I cringe.]
freddie said... Yeah, the way he planned everything and even built the hotel to kill people. Talk about a haunted house.
Evil Editor said... You check into a hotel and the next thing you know you're being tossed into a pit of quick lime, or a kiln. Holmes makes Jack the Ripper look like a boy scout. That hotel he built. Yikes.
Robin S. said... Yeah- the discussion about the young women from rural towns doing something that was apparently relatively new for the time, and going to the city to find work - and in that new vulnerability - finding users like madams and vermin like Holmes.
BuffySquirrel said... eh, used to be british hotels where you would check in and during the night the top of the four poster would be lowered and you would be suffocated in your sleep
freddie said... The part with the kids at the end was really sad. What Holmes did to them.
Kiersten said... Sorry, I was busy getting my query rejected. Where were we...ah, yes. I wondered at his diagnosis of Holmes. It seems to me he was a sociopath, not a psychopath, so now I have another thing to research. Dang Larson. It also makes you wonder about our macabre fascination with this sort of thing--In Cold Blood, this book--we're horrified, but at the same time, I liked those chapters more, because I wanted to know what was going to happen next.
BuffySquirrel said... i thought sociopath was the new name for psychopath.
Kiersten said... Yes, exactly, the diagnosis seemed outdated to me.
BuffySquirrel said... if i'm going to read about serial killers i generally prefer more scholarly works. i'm not sure it's worse to lure people into hotels and murder them than it is to take advantage of a person's trust in their doctor to murder them, tbh
Kiersten said... I don't think there's a "worse" in those situations, Buffy. Evil is evil.
BuffySquirrel said... i don't find "evil" a useful term myself :)
Freddie: why isn't evil a useful term? Too broad?
buffysquirrel: it's meaningless explains nothing
freddie said... So what did you think of the book?
BuffySquirrel said... as a book about a serial killing bastard with all the conscience of a mosquito, it was a very good book about the fair
Robin S. said... I really enjoyed it- and I really enjoy your all's comments.
Kiersten said...Turns out I hate architecture. Now I feel so uncultured.
BuffySquirrel said... I would have liked less architecture.
sylvia said... I quite liked the architecture - or at least, I like the combination of Burnham and Holmes in terms of getting the bigger picture. I liked the feeling of context. A murderer in the city isn't the full context, there are other things happening around.
Evil Editor said... This was like two books. A history book and a novel, except most of the novel was true.
BuffySquirrel said... Here's how I imagine it went.
Larson: I wanna write a book about the architects who designed the World's Fair in Chicago. Also, pork.
Publisher: Nobody wants to read about architects. They're boring.
Larson: But the World's Fair--
Larson: The mayor gets murdered.
Larson: At the end.
Publisher: (yawns) Too late.
Larson: If I could find some juicy murders to spice it up...?
Publisher: We'd take a look.
freddie said... Ah, I saw that on your blog, buffy. I came away with the same feeling. But I did read in an interview on the site for the book that Larson had to piece more together about Holmes. Like there wasn't as much information readily available. So that could have been a factor.
sylvia said... I see your point Buffy - and yeah, I can see that angle as well. I guess I'd have read either novel so to get them combined was fine by me ;)
Evil Editor said... I agree that the connection between Holmes and the fair was weak.
freddie said... I also thought the Holmes/fair connection was rather weak. It kind of gives credence to buffy's point that he put in Holmes to sell more copies. But Larson claims he started with Holmes. (I did a little homework.)
BuffySquirrel said... homework? i read the book what more do you want! lol :D
Evil Editor said... The notes in the back of the book explain a lot of his reasoning for things that he didn't get from Holmes's memoir and news reports.
Robin S. said... I saw the end of book notes- they were as interesting as the book - almost made me wish he'd built his search INTO the book.
freddie said... homework? i read the book what more do you want! lol :D Hah! Well, I asked to "lead" the chat for this month, so I felt I should go above and beyond. Although I can see it's more of a task of reigning everyone in. Or riding the horse til it drops. Or . . . can you see I'm due for a bad analogy exercise? I didn't read the notes in the back. Oops.
BuffySquirrel said... eh, he claims the book is true, then makes stuff up; that's annoying i hated it when he tried to tease us with what the big attraction was when we knew it was the freaking ferris wheel. all that stuff about what the woman thought and did while she was locked in the death room was made up. do all n/f writers secretly want to be novelists?
Kiersten said... When faced with a long, long fighting over getting things built and delays and struggles chapter, I actually skipped ahead to see what Holmes was up to. Then I went back and read it.
Oh, can we talk about his heavy-handed and annoying use of foreshadowing? When he would drop a "soon he would find out..." or "little did he know..." or "what the next month would bring..." line I just wanted to chuck the book and go look everything up on Wikipedia. Would have saved me a lot of pages. I think that's a fine tool every now and then, but he used it way, way too often to try and build suspense.
BuffySquirrel said... /me hates "little did he know"
Robin S. said... I checked into Larson's other books - for instance, Thunderstruck, I believe- and he combines something new and novel about an age with a story - like with T-Struck... the Marconi and a purported killer fleeing on a ship. Except the ship could receive communications. Change - looked at in a new way. I kind of liked that,
sylvia said... The one who actually pissed me off was Larson. I quite enjoy novelisations of factual events but I do feel I need to know where the lines are drawn and that I can trust the author. Larson came across a few times as very emotional, I didn't feel I could trust him to accurately represent.
Evil Editor said... The fair part was saved to some extent by how impossible it was for them to put it together. I Googled the fair and looked at some pictures of the buildings. Unbelievable that they put that together at that time. The pyramids? Child's play.
freddie said... Yep. But that's something about the book that annoyed me. It had hardly any pictures. I had a hard time imagining (and believing) the grandeur. But I do feel the book was saved by how impossible it was to put it together. But that's Chicago for you. We're always slapping things together at the last minute.
Kiersten said... I liked learning about it, and the fact that they pulled off the fair really was amazing. I probably would have been happier just reading a few pages about it and looking at the pictures online though. Thinking about it, however, it wouldn't have had as much an impact. Since he made me wade (and wade and wade and wade) through all the muck Burnham had to go through, I really did appreciate it more in the end.
Evil Editor said... Yes, a picture is worth a thousand words. Thirty pictures and they could have shortened the book a lot.
Robin S. said... I have to say I wish he'd stuck with Holmes a bit more and built SOME of the fair into the story.
BuffySquirrel said... i thought the author liked holmes a little too much
freddie said... Really, buffy? You thought the author liked Holmes?
BuffySquirrel said... yes, i did
freddie said... I got the sense the author really admired Burnham (and for good reason). I think the author liked Olmsted (sp?), too.
Evil Editor said... Olmsted's work lives on. Biltmore House, Central Park...
Robin S. said... ...and, believe it or not, the parks in Louisville, Olmstead designed. They're gorgeous.
Evil Editor said... What amazes me is how little I knew about any of this. You'd think there'd be more mention of it in history books.
Kiersten said... It's true, EE, I can't believe everyone has heard of Jack the Ripper but not Holmes.
Evil Editor said... Also, it appears the national press was no different back then than now, jumping on sensational stories.
Robin S. said... Kind of a Gonzo nonfictional blending account.
sylvia said... OK, this bit is factual about Holmes: He describes a turning point in his life as the day some older boys forced him into a village doctor's office and face-to-face with a skeleton. "It was a wicked and dangerous thing to do to a child of tender years and health," Holmes says, though he admits that the experience cured him of his fears. He attributes his desire to go into medicine to this memorable incident. Larson writes: The incident probably did occur, but with a different choreography. More likely the two older boys discovered that their five-year-old victim did not mind the exursion; that far from struggling and shrieking, he merely gazed at the skeleton with cool appreciation.
Robin S. said... Yep, Syl, I think the kid was born the way he was. I agree.
sylvia said... Now isn't that just total fantasy? Larson, I mean, not me. Well, ok, both.
BuffySquirrel said... personally don't see any reason why a five-year-old should be scared of a skeleton anyway
freddie said... I agree, too, but it kind of bugged me that Larson made that statement. The truth is, no one really knows.
Kiersten said... Buff. I thought a lot of the side characters were interesting. I'll probably read up on Sol Bloom.
Evil Editor said... He seemed to do his best to throw in every famous name of anyone who had anything to do with the fair, or even went to it.
Robin S. said... I agree about the famous name tossing. There were so many elements that could have been amazing and were still good, but could've been more - by bringing in less.
freddie said... The stuff with Sullivan cracked me up. Although I probably shouldn't laugh at the bitterness.
Robin S. said... If nothing else, I learned a lot about a time/an era I knew little about.
kierstenbrazier: What attracts us as readers to these horrible things. Because really, like someone brilliant who I forget said it said, could he have sold it without the Holmes aspect?
buffysquirrel: i wasn't attracted to it. glamourisation of serial killers, i hate
akasylvia: The best "murder" non-fiction I read lately was Helter Skelter. The author is emotionally invested but, in my opinion, comes across as more trustworthy than Larson
freddie: i agree, kiersten. no way could have they sold the book with it just about the fair. i mean and made it a bestseller
evledtr: Apparently there've been books about the fair and about Holmes. Whether any made money I don't know.
buffysquirrel: it's a much better book about the fair than it is a book about holmes for me
robin: Yeah- it's too bad the fair wasn't simply background.
buffysquirrel: i wasn't interested much in the fair, especially being told every two minutes how wonderful chicago is
evledtr: Is Chicago that great freddie?
kierstenbrazier: lol...I didn't think it made chicago sound wonderful at all
freddie: it is pretty great except for our mobsters
buffysquirrel: whether it is or not, i didn't need to be told about it all the time. also, it sounded vile
evledtr: Do they still have slaughterhouse tours?
akasylvia: ee: ew!
freddie: i don't think so
buffysquirrel: people nowadays want to pretend meat is born in plastic packets
robin: Larson does this mixing and it' s well received - he writes well - andI enjoyed it - but I think a different mix, as had been mentioned, might have read better to me.
akasylvia: I'll tell you a really good example is Patricia Cornwall, with her Jack the Ripper expose
freddie: I do think the whole reason for putting on the fair was kind of childish - just to stick it to Paris and New York City
robin: Isn't that how most decisions by guys are made?
kierstenbrazier: lol, robin
evledtr: Someone had to stick it to NYC
freddie: yes, Robin!
robin: Mine's bigger'n yours. I mean we even got to the MOON to beat the Russian guys.
buffysquirrel: i found larson utterly unreliable
akasylvia: Buffy: yes, unreliable is exactly the description I was lacking
freddie: Why unreliable? Just wondering. because of the scenes he made up?
buffysquirrel: he made stuff up
akasylvia: OK, found an example Holmes is reminiscing about running into a beggar with a false leg. And there's a photo taken, and Holmes says "I kept it for many years and the thin terror-stricken face of that bare-footed, home-spun clad boy I can yet see"
kierstenbrazier: That's a quote directly from Holmes, though
robin: I figured Holmes was doing a 'poor me, don't kill me' thing, like Ted Bundy.
akasylvia: Larson points out he was in prison... "hoping to engineer a swell of public sympathy. While it is charming to imagine the scene, the fact is the cameras that existed during Mudgett's (Holmes) boyhood made candid moments alomost impossible to capture, especially when the subject was a child. If the photographer saw anything in Mudgett's eyes, it was a pale blue emptiness that he knew, to his sorrow, no existing film could ever record" THAT'S what I mean by unreliable. He totally makes the point that Holmes is full of shit Then he adds this random "dead eyes" fantasy stuff
buffysquirrel: yeah, Syl, often goes one step too far
akasylvia: Which makes me feel I can't trust his description
buffysquirrel: i don't think we can trust larson at all
kierstenbrazier: How did you guys like Larson stylistically?
buffysquirrel: i didn't i went off him immediately he described the slaughter of cattle as murder
freddie: oh right. I remember reading this on your blog
buffysquirrel: yeah, i pretty much covered what i thought in my review
evledtr: I consider the harvesting of wheat murder.
buffysquirrel: yes, EE, cos you're EVIL There's a hell of a lot of wheat-murdering going on around here atm
robin: I think Larson writes well- but the subject matter is too scattered for me- the black white /good bad is a little too simple - although i did find it interesting that some crimes were eaier to commit with the trubulence of society and the growth of working class single women, etc.
freddie: truthfully, I can't quite put my finger on why the book didn't grab me. I think it was the way Larson tried to play up the irony of Holmes being in the Black City when the White City was displayed. Not much irony there. Big cities attract criminals.
buffysquirrel: big cities create criminals
robin.a.billings: Oh. I guess they do- but there are some doozies in the country as well- out there where no one can see them.
kierstenbrazier: It was a very dry style, I think. Transferred from newspaper writing--bare bones. Not that I need a lot of embellishment, but this just didn't resonate with me voice-wise.
akasylvia: I don't think Larson understands the difference between reporting and embellishing - that's why I like unreliable to describe him
freddie: So Larson is kind of a glorified reporter here. An unreliable glorified reporter. Larson claimed in an interview that he does all his own research. Maybe that's a problem here.
evledtr: I think they should have perserved the white city, or at least the most impressive part. I realize it got burned down by strikers, but they were letting it go anyway.
buffysquirrel: it wasn't built to last tho
kierstenbrazier: Have any of you ever been to Balboa Park in San Diego? Same thing--built it for a fair/exposition, but then preserved it. It's great. I wish they could have done the same thing there, like you said, EE. But they went back and altered one of the buildings so it could--same thing they did with them in San Diego. Just seemed like a collossal waste of time and money.
freddie: The fair or the book, K? lol
kierstenbrazier: lol, both, Freddie, both. Actually I was talking about just the book.
kierstenbrazier: I think he only mentioned Holmes' eyes about every other page. Blue eyes. Dead blue eyes. Mesmerizing blue eyes. We get it. Dude had blue eyes.
buffysquirrel: oh god yes EVERY WOMAN loved him. that's why he had to go out of the city and back to someone he used to know for his next victim. cos they were queueing up. i don't think larson likes women
freddie: I would have liked to know a lot more about his downfall and how that came about. he didn't go into nearly enough detail for me about that.
akasylvia: Holmes is freakily scary but that stands on his own. Maybe Larson was afraid we wouldn't hate him sufficiently?
kierstenbrazier: Yeah, Sylvia. But really, how could you not hate the guy?
evledtr: I hate him still.
buffysquirrel: but that's just larson's take and i don't trust him to have gone into the subject in enough depth to justify such statements
akasylvia: I did like the reference to why it's the Windy City though :)
kierstenbrazier: I thought it was interesting that no one in Chicago even looked into him, but he tried to pull the same stuff in Texas and didn't get anywhere.
Robin: Who? Holmes?
He went to Texas to the land he stole from Minnie, and tried to build another hotel
but the law enforcement was really wary of him, and he knew he couldn't do it there
akasylvia: I think that's what the Burnham bits brought to it - I could totally understand that in Chicago everything was so crazy, people just didn't notice
robin.a.billings: How did I miss that? Damn.
freddie: Well, Texan men do think they are the law - lol
kierstenbrazier: It was one of the random foreshadowings buried in a chapter
buffysquirrel: murders of a few young women don't interfere with business, so what's the problem?
kierstenbrazier: or maybe I got it from stuff I read on the side...dang memory, I remember everything I read, just not the source.
robin: Yeah- you got that right, Kiersten. I know about that firsthand. Or did.
freddie: i think that was in the book, k
kierstenbrazier: Yeah, I thought so...
freddie: So it wasn't a very strong book, I'd say
robin: So why was it a bestseller? EE?
akasylvia: The book was actually probably my least favourite of our chat books so far. But I didn't at any point throw it on the floor, which is good :D
freddie: D (my roomie) said that everyone he's talked to has raved about it
i was shocked . I guess they're biased, being in Chicago
akasylvia: lol Freddie - just maybe :)
Robin: I liked a lot about it - I just wished for tweaks - and for it to be shorter - less documentary in places - mood-setting and factbuilding don't really require that, I don't think.
buffysquirrel: yeah what did it tell us in the end? why holmes did what he did? no
akasylvia: I loved the concept more than the finished product
buffysquirrel: no attempt at serious analysis at all
akasylvia: Also - was it just me? I took four times as long to read this as I normally spend reading a book.
freddie: i agree, Syl
buffysquirrel: took me a long time to read cos it kept having to be picked up after hitting the wall
robin: I did take a while to read it- but I think the dry style lends itself to that.
evledtr: That was true of history books compared to English in school, too.
freddie: It did take a long time. I had to stop reading after a few pages
then pick it up again
robin: It needed a chopping kind of edit.
buffy: if I'd trusted him more, I'd have been happy with simply "here's what happened, you work it out" we still don't know what happened. only that larson thinks women are cattle
freddie: Right, buffy! I never felt I got a clear picture of what was going on with Holmes.
akasylvia: But as he decided he was going to tell us his viewpoint and visions, I think he should have taken it further
robin.a.billings: Yeah- with his viewpoint and visions, i'd have beem happy to hear more on that level.
freddie: I think Larson wants to be taken seriously as a historian.
buffysquirrel: then he should become one
robin.a.billings: Well, it does look like he did his homework on the history.
buffysquirrel: but he hasn't the historian's approach to the writing
freddie: but the money, buffy. think of the money. :)
buffysquirrel: eh, money. you can't eat it
akasylvia: I won't take him seriously as a historian because of the emotive bits he puts in
kierstenbrazier: How could you write this without that, though?
evledtr: There's a gigantic book of the fair with info on each building and illustrations you can view on line. There's not nearly as much info on Holmes available.
akasylvia: I guess that's what it comes down to for me. I love fiction. I love non-fiction. I enjoy lots of fictionalised non-fiction. Decide what you are writing plskthx
buffysquirrel: Kiersten, try reading Trafalgar, the biography of a battle by roy adkins
to see how a historian approaches a subject
evledtr: He wrote a nonfiction book and a novel. And combined them.
buffysquirrel: well, i don't approve
akasylvia: EE: exactly. And I guess it makes me feel like I don't know where I stand. Which book are we in at the moment.
ChrisEldin said... I haven't read this, but OMG these comments are complete teasers! Sounds like an awesome book. I never heard of Holmes---will google, but am afraid...
Julie Weathers said... Ah, I didn't realize this was the book. I'm fairly familiar with the story. Glad I didn't read the book. These things bother me too much.