written August 6, 2011
What are we to do with something like Devil in the White City? It’s won an award for Best Fact Crime, and labeled as History, but reads with enough dramatic, pulpy push that it could be taken to the beach. It’s this tension between professional and lay you put your frustrated finger on. Larson is trying to present as much fact as possible, but as it’s not in academic article form and meant for public consumption there is a questioning if the edges have been rounded to make a better story. First, I have to say that Devil can be quite useful in transporting us back to the sensory rawness and optimism of the age.
To me it reads like a 388-page version of Carl Sandburg’s poem “Chicago,” full of both cruel vice and energetic promise. “The Black City” on pages 11-12 excellently summarizes these dualities, and I will most likely use this passage in my junior U.S. History class to represent the fraught, rapid urbanization of the late 19th century . Of its other positives it often moves at a satisfying pace and builds nicely, cutting between its multitudes of moving pieces, not least among them describing the laborious building of the exposition. Since you correctly focused on the enigmatic Holmes let’s move to him. To his credit at times Larson explicitly states that the facts are not known, hedging with “it then might be assumed that…” The first time I really asked myself how far the truth was being diverged from was his encounter with Mrs. Holton (who could not later give her side of it). Dialogue that is obviously created is perhaps an annoyance, but can we allow for creative license to fill in the gaps? Perhaps. I have taken more notice of the relative lack of dialogue. Beyond this Larson is often in the figures’ heads, which I would chalk up to assuming their motivations based on his research. Some details are purely imagined, as when Holmes first steps from the train and women are watching him. Was Holmes really “fresh and crisp” and female glances like “wind-blown petals’? (35). Perhaps Larson opens himself up for historical criticism because of his prose style, threading in heightened metaphorical lines like “daylight faded to thin broth” that are usually reserved for fiction.
Admittedly, a large part of Holmes might be fictionalized, even by the man himself. Has the rest of the book then been creatively sharpened as well? Larson himself clearly laments the elusive Holmes, who comes off in the Notes section as the Joker telling differing versions of his scars, leaving the author to make sense of it all (394). Even a memoir Holmes left is maddeningly unhelpful in this way, as Holmes is the ultimate unreliable narrator, which forces Larson to choose a version of Holmes, stating he did “present only one possibility” (395). It could be argued that Larson should have made this more apparent in the text, but it could have served as a distraction for those reading for enjoyment.
As Larson says, even Holmes’ true motivation is a mystery. Other headaches include multiple, contradictory witness accounts, and the flimsy nature of the era’s press. It’s right to give Novick his due while asking what is true. Even the best, most accurate history is an approximation. Yet it is very understandable, while wishing to invest in the antagonist, to conversely feel cheated if the reality is possibly marred by an overzealous writer. The book might be more honest to call itself simply nonfiction, as the history label leaves me nonetheless uneasy for all the research. In the end however, the story’s statuary Gilded Age essence can still be appreciated, even if the painted outer hue is a bit off.