Monday, 20 October 2014

The Devil in the White City by Eric Larson

This is an interesting mix of two stories. I'm not entirely sure that they hang together, except for coincidences of time and place. But neither, perhaps, was enough of a story by itself to make a book. And so they've been woven together, fairly skilfully, perhaps, but still a bit oddly. It helps that both are interesting as stand-alone topics, so the relationship between them doesn't need to be as strong.

The juxtaposition of horror with great achievement, is, I guess, an interesting theme. Perhaps it's just that it's not developed enough. I don't know what grand statements you could make out of tying the two stories together, but there isn't an effort to do so. Perhaps that would be grandiose and in the end, unnecessary.

But what are the two stories? I'm rambling on about whether or not they fit without at all writing about what they are. All right. Story #1 is the story of the Chicago World's Fair, the trials and tribulations of winning the bid, designing, building, and maintaining it. Story #2 is the story of a serial killer who was luring women to their deaths in the same city over the same period. The link seems to be a) Chicago in general and b) that he visited the fair with two of his eventual victims - although I'm pretty sure that that's not much more than saying that he lived in Chicago, given the eventual popularity of the fair.

Of the two, I liked the Chicago World's Fair story more - not surprising, if you know of my general aversion to anything that smacks of serial killers. It's also exactly the kind of popular history that's going to appeal to me - full of disagreements and characters. Strangely, there's a third story woven in here, that fits better with the Chicago World's Fair half of the novel, about a young man who grows increasingly unhinged in his desire for political patronage and his love and then hate for the mayor of the city. This, it feels, fits in like a perfect dovetail, given that the story of the Fair is also one of patronage and playing the angles, looking for consideration and ignoring warnings. It, too, is woven in, popping up with portentous phrases that lets us know that something big is coming. And that works in this case. Better than the serial killer.

But that may be just me. The story of the World's Fair is engrossing, from the crazy designs people submitted for the centrepiece, at least a couple of which had me laughing out loud, to the minutiae of trying to organize such an event. I was stunned to see how much work went on after the fair had opened - how even the centerpiece wasn't fully built or functional. (I don't know why I'm dancing around what that was, but Larson refrains from naming the engineer for chapters and chapters because it gives it away. I guess I'm doing the same thing.)

The story of the serial killer, well, it's interesting, but not really my favourite topic. I'm sure for those more interested in the workings of a serial killer would be fascinated, but while I wasn't overly disturbed by it, I was almost always wanting to get back to the World's Fair. That may just be me.

The two stories don't hang together that well, but Larson does a good job with each, and it's not so jarring that it mars the books. Still, this is an interesting popular history of incredible undertakings. In both senses of the last word.

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