It hurts so much when you want a book to be fantastic, but it’s not. Before I go there, I’ll mention a couple saving graces for The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America. There’s a great quote from one of the main characters, architect Daniel Burnham: “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood.”
And there’s a cool literary connection. The book takes place during the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. The main grounds were known as the “White City” for the use of pale stucco on the buildings, and the first widespread use of streetlights. If you’ll recall, there are a bunch of flashback narratives in Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth that also take place during the Chicago exposition. So it was cool to read Devil with some of the sense of wonder and awe and hardship in Chris Ware‘s comic.
I couldn’t finish the book, though.
I hate it when authors don’t trust the story or trust the audience to follow along without prodding. One example I’ll never forget is in the film The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Evil armies are on the march, folks are going to take refuge in Helm’s Deep. Gandalf has to run an errand, but he says to Aragorn, “Look to my coming, at first light, on the fifth day. At dawn, look to the East.“
And what do you know, a couple dozen scenes later, evil is at the door and prospects are bleak. But then Aragorn looks at a window with the morning sun shining in, and you get this ham-handed, idiotic Gandalf voiceover… “Look to my coming at first light on the fifth day. At dawn, look to the East.” Uggghhh. Easily one of the worst parts of the whole trilogy. No trust in the audience to remember a great line, no subtlety.
In that vein, Devil author Erik Larson (no relation) does two things that drove me nuts. For one, he subdivides chapters into even smaller chunks. That doesn’t normally bother so much, but his mini-sections get as small as a paragraph or two, or even a lone sentence. Too choppy. The second nuisance—and this is what killed me—is the frequent use of a teaser phrase at the ends of these mini-sections.
- Why anyone would even want a soundproof vault was a question that apparently did not occur to him.
- But even he did not, and could not, grasp what truly lay ahead.
- But again, that was later.
- It was one more sign of a gathering panic.
- Which terrified her.
- Hays grew suspicious and watched Mudgett closely—albeit not closely enough.
Come on. The book’s jacket tells me there’s a serial killer in there. Foreboding is already built-in, no need to pile it on.