‘Devil in the White City’ by Eric Larson (2003)

28Jan06

I would like to express my great disbelief that writers as immature as Larson:

  1. are published;
  2. are nominated for a National Book Award.

Larson’s prose is clumsy and hackneyed. He telegraphs plot points and uses an excessive amount of ridiculous and/or nonsensical similes, including:

  • “came to see her as an obstacle, just as a sea captain might view an iceberg”
  • “sitting down to dinner with these men was like being a stranger at someone else’s Thanksgiving”
  • “the bride…appeared like a white ghost”
  • “iron-clad wheels that struck the pavement like rolling hammers”
  • “the tension was…like the inaudible cry of overstressed steel”
  • “Chicago is like the man who marries a woman with a ready-made family of twelve”
  • “glances of young women fell around him like wind-blown petals”
  • “in the heat and haze [the plants] looked like desert troops gone too long without water”
  • “Cinder and smoke drifted like soiled gauze past the window”
  • “Sentences wandered through the report like morning glory through the pickets of a fence”
  • “his eyes…gleamed…like marbles of lapis”
  • “gas jets…hissed like mildly perturbed cats”
  • “in his eyes there was only a flat calm, like a lake on a still August morning”
  • “as if a giant wool blanket had settled over the house”
  • “She felt as if a coarse blanket has been lifted from her life”
  • “the human body was like the polar icecap, something to be studied and explored”
  • “he looked forward to most were the days before his departure when her need flared like fire in a dry forest”
  • “This notion came to Prendergast initially as a glimmer, like the first sunlight to strike the Masonic tower each morning”
  • “Minnie was an asset now, an acquisition to be warehoused until needed, like cocooned prey”
  • “laughter that rang like crystal touched in a toast”
  • “chemical odors ebbed and flowed like an atmospheric tide”
  • “The possession he craved was a transient thing, like the scent of a fresh-cut hyacinth”
  • “[Ferris wheel] cars…stood on the ground like the coaches of a derailed train”
  • “The frontier…stood there glittering in the sun like the track of a spent tear”
  • “pale blue uniforms standing out like crocuses against black loam”
  • “three huge Worthington pumps began stretching their shafts and pistons, like praying mantises shaking off the cold”
  • “the great Golden Door, which arced across the light-red face of the building like a gilt rainbow”
  • “Harrison’s murder fell upon the city like a heavy curtain”
  • “Leaves hung in the stillness like hands of the newly dead”
  • “[The humidity] clung to Holmes and his fellow prisoners like a cloak of moist wool”
  • “The house was charming…like the gingerbread house in a fairy tale”
  • “For Dora Root life with John had been like living upon a comet”
  • “now that Julia had begun looking at [her husband] as if he had just emerged from a rendering vat at the stockyards”
  • “other days with a silvery medicinal odor, as if a dentist were at work somewhere in the building easing a customer into a deep sleep”
  • “The wind pummeled the balloon as if it were an inverted punching bag”

I also think that Larson has tried to tackle too much material. In a work of this nature, the reader sometimes is confused by all of the one-shot characters necessary to telling the story. By switching between three or four different stories, Larson only compounds the problem. I think that Larson should have detailed Holmes’ killing spree in a separate novel. Though The Colombian World’s Fair provided Holmes a stream of victims, his killing was in no way motivated by or limited to the Fair. He didn’t kill anyone at the Fair; he killed people before and after the event. The connection between Holmes and the Fair seems arbitrarily imposed by Larson. Holmes’ geographic and temporal proximity to the event did not necessitate Larson detailing Holmes’ story along side the Fair’s. The inclusion of Prendergast seemed more appropriate, though I believe that his story could have been greatly truncated.

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