Sunday, December 2, 2012
Review: The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
So, my coworker knows me well. She told me I would love this book, and I did. Let's start with what it's about. Because if you know me, as soon as you read what the book's about, you will understand why I love it so. In The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson tells the story of the Chicago Worlds Fair in 1893-from the very beginning planning stages to the end of it. But what many people don't know is that during that same time period, Chicago had a serial killer on the loose. Because of all the people constantly coming and going, no one even realized that there was a serial killer. So this books chronicals the fair from beginning to end, but also the goings on of Dr. H. H. Holmes, the serial killer. Much of the parts about Holmes are speculation though, because the home where a lot of the evidence was found burned down to the ground in a fire before it could be properly investigated. So you see why this book appealed to me. Especially because it all took place in the 1800s when serial killers really weren't studied and there hadn't been many documented cases of them.
Larson's writing is for sure one of the reasons I loved this book so much. I mean, I loved the story itself, but his writing takes you back into the 1800s. He describes the city and how much it needed improvement. It was a dirty place where people died accidentally and on purpose every day, and that helps to explain why no one realized that Holmes was murdering so many people. The parts about the fair itself could have been a lot slower for me if Larson's writing didn't captivate me so much. The fair takes up a good portion of the book, and I love history and all that, but honestly some of the information was slow to get past. But it was Larson's writing that made you want to keep reading.
I thought the book was really well researched. Considering there isn't really much information about Holmes and the people he murdered, Larson was able to dig up a lot of small details and surmise what may or may not have happened in a lot of cases.
I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in history, especially of cities in the late 1800s, and also people interested in, of course, murders back them. Not only because it was rare to have a serial killer on the loose back then (at least a documented one..), but because of the investigation that takes place after Holmes is found out. The detectives who worked the case worked super hard to get evidence and find his last victims.
And now a favorite quote, for anyone interested in the early study of psychopaths:
At first alienists described this condition as "moral insanity" and those who exhibited the disorder as "moral imbeciles". They later adopted the term "psychopath", used in the lay press as early at 1885 in William Stead's Pall Mall Gazette, which described it as a "new malady" and states, "Besides his own person and his own interests, nothing is sacred to the psychopath." Half a century later, in his path-breaking book The Mask of Sanity, Dr. Hervey Cleckley the prototypical psychopath as "a subtly constructed reflex machine which can mimic the human personality perfectly…. So perfect is his reproduction of a whole and normal man that on one who examines him in a clinical setting can point out in scientific or objective terms why, or how, he is not real." People exhibiting this purest form of the disorder would become known, in the jargon of psychiatry, as "Cleckley" psychopaths.
Title: The Devil in the White City
Author: Erik Larson
Date of Publication: February 10th, 2004
Number of Pages: 447
Source: Lent to me by a friend