Monday, 21 November 2011

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

H. H. Holmes was one of my favourite serial killers when I was growing up, and I finally got hold of this nonfiction account of his crimes from my mother

Holmes was a textbook psychopath operating in Chicago in the 1890s - just a few years after Jack the Ripper was tearing up London.  A doctor and a conman who charmed women, stole their money and murdered them. 

But what set him apart was the industrial scale he operated on.  He took over a whole city block, rebuilt it and turned it into a hotel designed for murder.  There were airtight vaults where he could suffocate his victims; rooms were turned into gas chambers; and there was a specially built incinerator in the basement to get rid of the evidence.  Many times though after disecting his victims, he merely sold their skeletons to a medical school.  No-one knows how many he killed.

Like Jack the Ripper, HHH was a product of his times.  Industrialisation meant more women coming to cities on their own to make a living.  Their parents would've generally grown up and lived their whole lives in the same small communities where even knew each other.  The coming 20th century meant more freedom for most (especially women) but also more dangers.

But there was another factor which fed Holmes' predatory nature - the Chicago World Fair in 1893.  This became the biggest peacetime event in history and attracted hundreds of thousands of sightseers from across the states and beyond.  The other half of ths book tells the history of the fair, the men who built it, and the huge obstacles in the path of success. Both sides of the story show the different ways in which the world became modern, for good and for bad.

It's a fascinating story, and always told in an engaging manner.  I see Leonardo De Caprio's bought the rights to the book, and Katherine Bigelow's meant to be directing.  Fingers crossed for that.

I've bought myself a fancy-dan Kindle, and I've already polished off my first book on that.  More psychopaths coming soon.....


Ed said...

Sounds fascinating. Coincidentally, I'm reading Alan Moore's From Hell at the moment - his take on Jack the Ripper. Moore's murderer is also of a murderous doctor; by royal appointment no less.

There does seem to be a general fascination with doctors turning their hand to mass murder - because it's so perverse and yet so plausible I suppose.

Would definitely recommend reading From Hell - serial killing and illuminati mythos combined - but then I'd recommend reading any Alan Moore, with the possible exception of Lost Girls!

Joe said...

From Hell - now you're talking! Despite the complety different tone, I kept being reminded of the concept of the ripper 'giving birth' to the 20th century when reading this book.

Lost Girls - I haven't had the pleasure yet, although it does look utter bloody filth. Here, did I see Alan Moore on Stewart Lee's recent show, or was that a dream?

Ed said...

You did indeed - a brief meeting of minds!