Revisiting Erik Larson’s White City, and its Devil

Posted: November 6, 2017 in Reading, Teaching, Writing
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Erik Larson / twitter.com

“Stumbling” and “serendipity” are two of the words that Erik Larson used as he recounted the moments that have unexpectedly led him to the subjects of his books. When he spoke at Lenoir- Rhyne on the morning of Friday, October 27, he told his interviewer, Jeffrey Delbert, Assistant Professor of Communications at LR, that he didn’t intend for his book on serial killer H.H. Holmes to be a dual narrative of Holmes and the 1893 World’s Fair. But his background reading on 1890s Chicago led him to a book–a boring monograph, as he called it–on the Colombian Exposition (the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair). Though the book bored him, one of its footnotes caught his eye: one that listed Juicy Fruit gum among the products first introduced at the fair. If not for that footnote, Larson said, he didn’t know if the book (The Devil in the White City) would have happened.

When an audience member asked about his penchant for crafting nonfiction narratives with the drama of novels, Larson remarked that he believed that such narratives can do more justice to real-life stories than a “bland historical approach.” Those words of his reminded me of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, which figures in the analysis of  The Devil in the White City that I wrote along with my students (as they wrote their own analyses) last spring–and that I offer again here:

The White City’s Blueprint: The Architecture of Larson’s Narrative Nonfiction

In Janet Maslin’s New York Times review of The Devil in the White City, she claims that Erik Larson avoids the risk of “turning [the book] into a random compendium.” For all of his density of detail, Larson does manage to avoid that risk, creating instead a gripping dual narrative—one that succeeds, as Maslin asserts that it does—but not by using what Maslin cites as tactics that might ordinarily seem “alarming.” Rather the techniques that Larson employs are among the very building blocks of contemporary narrative.

Chief among Larson’s most successful narrative strategies is his cross cutting, both between the dual storylines of the book (those of the Devil and the White City of the title) and between characters. One of his most compelling uses of cross cutting occurs in the chapter “Claustrophobia,” where Larson deftly shifts from the point of view of serial of killer H. H. Holmes, the devil of the title, to that of one of his victims, Anna “Nannie” Williams. In the first paragraphs of the chapter, Holmes and Anna are together in his office, where he asks her “if she would mind going into the adjacent room, the walk-in vault, to retrieve for him a document he had left inside” (294). Anna complies, and thereafter the point of view shifts between Anna inside the vault, believing “the door had closed by accident” (294), and Holmes standing outside the door, listening for the panic to come “as it always did” (295).

Readers witnessing the events leading up to Anna’s death do not stop to ask: How can Larson know what happened? Though they know in the back of their minds that only Holmes and Anna themselves could know what transpired, Larson’s dramatic cross cutting draws them so close to both the victim and her killer that they experience those moments as Holmes and Anna do.

In his endnotes, Larson addresses his reasons for depicting Anna’s murder as he did. Based on police speculation that Holmes killed both Anna and her sister, Minnie, in his vault, an earlier chronicler of Holmes’ exploits—Harold Schechter, author of Depraved (1994)—proposed that Holmes walked into the vault with Anna: “Grasping Nannie by the hand, he led her toward the vault” (Schechter qtd. in Larson 416). Rather than depicting the events as Schechter did, Larson presents Holmes sending Anna into the vault on a false errand because that scenario, in Larson’s words, “would have suited more closely his temperament” (416).

Whether Holmes sent Anna into his vault on a false errand, Larson’s compelling rendering of it exemplifies how the author employs the dramatic effects of fiction—not tactics that are “alarming” as Maslin claims, but ones that writers have commonly applied to narrative nonfiction for more than fifty years, since the publication of Truman Capote’s groundbreaking  account of the Clutter family murders in In Cold Blood. And like In Cold Blood, The Devil in the White City presents a true crime story with the narrative arc of a novel. But Larson’s book is more ambitious and broader in scope than Capote’s. Ultimately, The Devil in the White City is a hybrid of true crime and popular history—the gruesome murders of a serial killer juxtaposed with the construction of the magical white city that inspired Walt Disney and L. Frank Baum. For readers fascinated by the minds of criminals and visionary architects, it’s a page turner. And for writers drawn to the challenge of giving facts the appeal of fiction, it offers a blueprint.

Works Cited

Larson, Erik. The Devil in the White City. Vintage, 2004.

Maslin, Janet. “Add a Serial Murderer to 1893 Chicago’s Opulent Overkill.” Review of The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson, The New York Times, 10 Feb. 2003, http://www.nytimes.com, Accessed 26 Apr. 2017.

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Comments
  1. Lenore Gay says:

    Hi, Jane, interesting read. I don’t read much crime. I open the newspaper and there it is. Of course we get scant information in newspapers and novels develop characters and plot. It’s a popular genre.

    Best, Lenore

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