Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson

I first read "The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America" a couple years ago, while I was on a spa vacation with my best friend.

We took a few days and went to a beach town in Orange County (Balboa Beach or Newport Beach, I think) to just ... relax. We got massages, facials, had brunch on the beach-front terrace; it was lovely and serene.

In between spa treatments, we laid out by the pool and read whatever magazines and books my friend had brought along. I needed something to distract me from the horrible, burning sunshine (she's a bronze goddess and I am Snow White, dragged out into the light only under extreme duress), so I decided to go for the gorier book, which happened to be "The Devil in the White City."

I have a strange fascination with murderers and serial killers-- not because I want to be one, but because I cannot fathom why anyone would want to kill someone else or how someone could physically kill someone else. The how really gets to me and gives me the shivers. I think that if I hadn't found visual effects, I might have become a criminologist (certainly not a crime scene investigator- crime scenes are far too dirty).

So, on a sunny California day, lying out on a deck chaise, between a gently rippling blue pool and a slightly choppy Pacific Ocean, I started reading about a disgustingly innovative and freakishly cold serial killer.

I still remember how much my eyes stung, with the sunshine beating down on the cream-colored pages, making the text blur so that the serifs stood out but the remainders of the letters softened. It didn't matter how much I teared up; I couldn't stop reading.

The book is quiet, a clean, spare depiction of America in the 1880s and '90s. I loved Erik Larson's tone, his adjectives. I can't imagine the endless hours of research that he had to do, delving into the actions and mind of a monster- can't see how that didn't make Larson go insane.

He kept his sanity (thankfully) and turned out a book that is part novel, part biography, part history lesson. The World's Columbian Exposition has never been so intriguing before! I actually learned a lot (the man who invented the Ferris wheel, the politics of architecture back in the day) and was kept riveted by the gruesome true story.

This book is not for the squeamish- though it doesn't go into gory detail, just the plainly worded descriptions of some of his actions are despicable.

The way that Larson weaves together the life and times of H. H. Holmes and the architects of the World Expo is amazing. How he could come up with something like that is beyond me- it's weirdly coincidental and alarming how such an event of citywide and nationwide goodwill could be the stage for something so terrible.

Perhaps not the best read for a poolside vacation, but still a great book. I've read it a few more times since and it's still good, still hooks me every time. More fun than a biography, less sensationalist than a novel, perfect for a brain craving a lot of substance with a little sugar to make it go down easily.

Now if only I could find time to re-read this book ... or pick up any number of new books just sitting at home, waiting for me...