ReReading in Progress: Devil in the White City - That Skipping Ahead Problem

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America - Erik Larson

(Last chatted about this reread here.)


Going to start this off with a quote because it's a good example of my problem with this book - which I otherwise like. (I have a feeling I'll say that a lot after my critiques of the book - that "but otherwise I like this! Really!") It's also an example of the problem I wrote about in my last post on the book - why you want to skip ahead.


There's a chapter break in this quote - see if you can catch where it is. (It should seem obvious! Links are to wikipedia in case you wanted to actually know about the people in this bit.)


p 93 - 94:

"...Holmes turned his attention to other, more pleasant distractions. Sheer fate had brought two new women into his life, one of them nearly six feet tall and possessed of a rapturous body, the other, her sister-in-law, a lovely young woman with black hair and exquisite dark eyes.

That the tall one came equipped with a husband and daughter made the situation infinitely more appealing.

The eastern architects left New Jersey at 4:50 pm, January 8, 1891, in car 5, section 6, of the North Shore Limited, which Hunt had reserved so that they could all travel together. Olmstead had come down from Boston the night before in order to join them.

It was a bewitching moment: the gorgeous train rocketing through the winter landscape, carrying five of history's greatest architects, all in the same car, gossiping, joking, drinking, smoking. Olmstead used the opportunity to describe in detail Jackson Park and the trials of dealing with the expositions many layers of committees that for the moment seemed to have so much power. He respected Burnham for his candor, his directness, and the air of leadership he exuded, and no doubt he told the architects as much. That he spent a good deal of time asserting his own vision of the exposition's landscape is also beyond doubt, especially his belief that the Wooded Island should remain entirely free of conspicuous manmade structures."


And the answer: the chapter begins with "The eastern architects left New Jersey..."


Larson is telling two stories here - that of the building of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair and that of the serial killer H. H. Holmes. Which isn't a spoiler because that's part of the blurb on the back, and it's overt throughout that Holmes is the uber creepy criminal. But the problem is that the chapters about Holmes and whatever it is he's up to (the book gives you details bit by bit) are SUCH a massive leap in tone from the quiet story of business and architecture and very stressed designers and workers. Despite the anxiety and head-butting and politics of the Fair planning parts - the other story is about murder. I mean, they just don't compete - apples and oranges. Or apples and bloody implements of destruction - because these stories aren't even in the same "categorize em all as fruit" zone.


That's why I started this off with a quote - if you take away the chapter break and see what the stories look like next to each other - well, there you go. That's why you start thinking "ok, I do like these architects and I'm into the history of the fair - but I do want to know if people in that last chapter survive." It almost dares you to speed through or just skip ahead to find out.


I have this same problem in a lot of fiction. It's often why I'll get very frustrated with books that keep returning to what I refer to as the "dull couple"/"dull character" when I really want to know what happens to the characters I'm truly interested in. (example: Lydia and Wickam vs Elizabeth and Darcy) In fact, after I read Obsidian Blue's Game of Thrones review, I'm kind of glad I've not tackled any of those because I know I'd have the same problem. (Previously I'd kept away because of my Han in Carbonite problem. I am so full of bookish problems!) Sometimes skipping ahead solves the issue, but with Martin, well, that's a lot of pages I'll be skipping around. And if there's a big cast of characters and you're invested in only a few - well, that becomes a lot of skipping through and less enjoying the read. (I've had that problem with Dostoyevsky - the multiple Russian names/nicknames didn't help either. I need to try him again when I'm not on a deadline.)


Anyway, for me all of this is much nicer as a reread. But it's reminding me that it wasn't just my lack of patience that egged me on in my skipping-ahead problem!