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February 06, 2011

Rohit Reviews: The Devil in the White City (and Others)

The Devil in the White City Sin in the Second City For the Thrill of It Courtroom 302 Gang Leader for a Day Family Secrets

By now, the lament over what I deemed law school casualties has grown so loud on this site as to almost overwhelm what are and remain its principal messages: existential despair and all-consumed misanthropy. But ever committed to my pursuit of redemption, I shall again today eschew the tried and true topics of loneliness, contempt, and despair, and instead turn my attention to books—in this case, books about Chicago.

As with The Nine (which I reviewed here), The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson was a book I picked up in the fall of 2007, and it too became a casualty of my 1L year, remaining painfully half-read for three years thereafter. What had piqued my interest then was that it was a story about where I had just moved, but after my realization that I hated Hyde Park, completing the book became difficult. During my 3L year, however, I took a fantastic Greenberg Seminar on crime in the city of Chicago. In the course of that class, we read five books on famous Chicago crimes and criminality, and then discussed them in a small group over wine and beer. That experience prompted me to finally complete Larson's book, and today I review it, along with brief notes about the other five read in the seminar.

The Devil in the White City

Like most things Hyde Park, The Devil in the White City disappointed me. Hyped as novelistic history, I found the book to be satisfying as neither a novel nor as a history. It bogged too heavily in what I consider dull details to be a proper novel, and simultaneously did not develop the character of the subject—the serial killer HH Holmes—enough to be a proper history. The result was an uneasy blend that had intermittent flashes of excitement among an otherwise lackluster 400 page trudge.

The book tells the stories of two men, Daniel Burnham, the principal architect of the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, and HH Holmes, a serial killer who carried forth an appalling campaign of vicious murders a short distance away from the fair's grounds. (The notion of Hyde Park being host to appalling criminality even before it properly existed should not surprise those of us wretched souls who had the grand misfortune of spending some degree of time there.) Larson is at his best in explaining the incredible effort that marked the construction of the 1893 Columbian Exposition, and the book contains sometimes fascinating anecdotes about those who were responsible for its success. The engineer in me was particularly engrossed by the description of the construction of the monstrous Ferris Wheel. Having spent three years in Chicago, moreover, the descriptions of the city at the turn of the last century were compelling.

Where the book falters, however, is the description of the exploits of Holmes. What might have been a tale as chilling as Capote's In Cold Blood (review here), instead turns into a portrait that often seems superficial and lacking in insight. After each murder, the reader is left with a sense of wanting more detail, morbid though that sentiment may be. Ultimately, I'm not sure how much detail was available to Larson and as such, perhaps the comparison to In Cold Blood is unfair. Yet, unfair or not, nothing can change the fact that as a criminal profile, this book does not reach the heights it does as a history of the Columbian Exposition.

Where does all that leave me in terms of a recommendation? Despite its shortcomings, I would still recommend it, but perhaps only to fans of US or Chicago history, or maybe architecture. Three stars of five.

Briefly Noted

Karen Abbott, Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America's Soul. This, like The Devil in the White City, is another novelistic history, but a better executed one in my opinion. Abbott's description of the lurid vice scene in Chicago at the turn of the century is a compelling read and goes by at a fast pace. I would recommend it to anyone interested in history. Four stars of five.

Simon Baatz, For the Thrill of It: Leopold, Loeb, and the Murder That Shocked Jazz Age Chicago. Baatz in this book presents an interesting history of the senseless murder of a young boy by two well-to-do scions of wealthy Chicago families. Again set in Hyde Park (one that, unlike today, was home to much of Chicago's wealth, instead of overrun with lawless hooligans), the book is told from the perspective of the killers and ultimately also ends up presenting a decent profile of the killers' famous attorney, Clarence Darrow. The book is a little longer than it needs to be, however, and can bog down at times in the middle. Three stars of five.

Steve Bogira, Courtroom 302: A Year Behind the Scenes in an American Criminal Courthouse. Despite spending three years in Chicago, I never once ventured to the scene of this book, the Cook County Courthouse on 26th and California. And after having read this book, I don't think I missed anything. Bogira paints a disturbing portrait of petty theft, minor drug crimes, and general dereliction that no doubt accompanies most who find themselves in misguided clutches of America's entirely broken system of criminal justice. One shortcoming, I thought, was that the book tended to make the criminals the victims (which perhaps they are), while ignoring the consequences of their crimes. But even overlooking that flaw, the book makes for an important read, if for nothing else then the feeling one is left at the end: everything is broken, there's little chance of it getting better, and worst of all, no one even cares. Three stars of five.

Sudhir Venkatesh, Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets. This book details the story of a sociology graduate student at The University of Chicago, who somehow managed to ingrain himself with a gang in Chicago's wretched, deplorable, and lawless Robert Taylor Homes housing project in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The entire premise—upper-middle class grad student hanging out with inner city gangs—is almost ridiculous enough to be unbelievable, but the research that came out of it is altogether fascinating. Venkatesh, who incidentally is from the 'Vine and graduated from the same high school as me, in this book presents a compelling narrative of the underground economy and I found myself unable to stop reading it. It's a quick read and I would recommend it to everyone. Four stars of five.

Jeff Coen, Family Secrets: The Case That Crippled the Chicago Mob. The final book of the Greenberg Seminar, Family Secrets also holds the distinction as the first book I ever purchased for my Kindle. Unfortunately, beyond that, there's not much distinguishable about this book—or much to recommend it. The topic was interesting, obviously: the Mob is always a subject of intense fascination. But the book for some reason failed to capture my interest. It moved slowly, as though one was plodding through knee deep snow, and the character portraits were painfully nonexistent. It was hard to latch onto any of the individuals described, either in sympathy or antipathy; all there was the staid prose and a story told out of sequence that served more to confuse than build suspense. Even for those interested in Mob history, I wouldn't recommend this book. Two stars of five.


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