After East-End Jack, the only other Victorian serial killer people could name would probably be H.H. Holmes. The curious American doctor who built a crazy house in Chicago with gas chambers, hidden rooms and a furnace too big and too powerful for domestic use. So it’s somewhat bizarre that even though Holmes was caught and tried and executed, there’s something quite unknowable about him. We know who he was, but the why, even the how a lot of the time, remains an utter mystery.
At the time the fact that such a man existed wasn’t bloody grist to the mill of Sunday Magazine Supplements. There was not only a feeling that the gory details should be kept away from the general public, but a move even to limit the scope of the enquiry. We have no idea how many people he killed. His case was never fully examined in a court of law, as if his evil – if exposed – would turn out to be contagious.
These days the media would have more than a feeding frenzy, it would be – I don’t know – a devouring delirium. No detail, regardless of how small, would be ignored. All, from the brand of toothpaste he used outwards, would be given a sinister spin. There’s evidence here that there was a certain amount of that appetite already there, but from a 21st century perspective one can’t help but be amazed at how restrained the 19th century versions of us actually were.
We’ve obviously performed a high-speed 180 since the late Victorian era, to the extent that true-crime fiction of today generally and justifiably gets a bad press, because a lot of it is just there to be salacious and to titillate man’s desire for darkness. It’s the outer edge of the tabloidisation of society.
THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY is the upper end of the scale though, a world away from those tawdry paperbacks with bloody knives on the cover. It’s smart, beautiful gripping, page turning with a fine sense of history.
I did wonder, as I started reading, whether the decision to alternate Holmes’s story with the contemporaneous design and construction of the World’s Fair in Chicago would prove to be a wise one. After all, surely a serial killer is going to be far more fascinating than a bunch of architects sat in smoky rooms arguing. But Holmes is such a cypher in his own story that he really does take the idea of the banality of evil to a whole other level. We hear about his charm and mesmeric effect, but – boy! – he seems boring. As such Larson has to do the heavy lifting in the other side of the narrative, and really does take the architects’ story and make it really grip. So much so that I was actually rooting for plucky Chicago to find a statement piece that would live up to the previous fair’s Eiffel Tower.
Spoiler alert: They did and it was called The Ferris Wheel.
The fact that this book could make me care about the ins and outs, ups and downs of a construction project a hundred plus years back and thousands of miles away – so that it almost seems more interesting than a deadly, notorious serial killer – just shows that this book is practically a work of genius.
Not tawdry, not sensationalist, instead narrative history at its definite best.