I was born with the devil in me. I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than the poet can help the inspiration to sing H.H. Holmes
“I was born with the devil in me. I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than the poet can help the inspiration to sing” –H.H. Holmes
“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood” –Daniel Burnham
Erik Larson opens his book with these two quotes that function as a preview—and microcosm—to the essence of the two minds at the heart of his Devil in the White City. More than that, both men operated within the same city that spurred their minds to blossom in all their respective depravity and grandeur: Chicago. And more specifically, the author examines the single event that acted as the crucible for revealing both the best and worst that these men could conjure—that event being The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893—an event that would serve as a symbol to the spectrum of the human spirit in all its glory and monstrosity upon the advent of the twentieth century.
Chicago of 1893 was a burgeoning American city determined to demonstrate itself against its metropolitan rivals to the East. And with the national decision to commemorate Columbus’ 400th anniversary—coupled by the renowned debut of Eiffel’s Tower at the recent Paris Exposition of 1889—America needed to utilize the upcoming Chicago World’s Fair as a monument and announcement to American’s unparalleled capacity for achievement and innovation.
Leading this endeavor would be Daniel Burnham—the architect responsible for overseeing its exhibits, maintaining production, and selecting the fellow men responsible for elevating the Fair into a phenomenon surpassing all expectations. After the death of Burnham’s professional partner, celebrated architect John Root, almost the entire burden of the assignment fell upon his shoulders. a task with the potential to cripple most men faced with the challenge, but one in which Burnham would work tirelessly to succeed—despite certain failures and shortcomings often out of his control—to exemplify the power of a determined mind coupled with an unceasing work ethic.
These obstacles of Burnham’s contention would often arrive in the form of inclement weather, bureaucratic battles, and internal squabbles with fellow department heads. Nonetheless, despite numerous delays and last-minute fixes, the Fair was a triumphant success. One that would leave behind such marvels as The Ferris Wheel, Tesla’s alternating electrical current, gum, shredded wheat, spray painting, the device that creates plates for printing Braille…the list goes on ad nauseam. But besides these tangible heirlooms still affecting present American society, the ambition and awe of by the Fair itself would prove to be perhaps its most profound legacy.
As one example, Larson relays an anecdote concerning one of the countless construction workers hired to help the Fair reach its nearly impossible deadline. This construction worker being an otherwise anonymous employee by the name of Elias Disney, who would recount stories of the overwhelming awe instilled by the spectacle of The White City upon the attendees to his young son Walt, which, Larson implies, would later be imitated in his designs of Disneyland.
Interspersed between these anecdotes of American achievement at its zenith, Larson weaves a parallel narrative focused upon the exploits of H.H. Holmes—America’s first true serial killer. Operating his nearby World’s Fair Hotel—which would later be infamously remembered as The Murder Castle—Holmes would seize upon the opportunity afforded by the Fair in the most monstrous manner imaginable: as a vehicle for his plans of murder and theft to be unleashed.
In stark juxtaposition to Burnham’s continued efforts to utilize his resources for the benefit of society, Holmes embodied the nightmare version of the American self-made man. Calculated, cold, and patient, Holmes worked with methodical ingenuity in his construction of the Murder Castle: a three-story hotel assembled from Holmes’ designs that would provide the perfect tenement to his abominable ambitions.
From assigning certain workers to only certain sections (limiting their knowledge to corroborate with one another), to his ability to charm creditors for money that would never be repaid, to his own manufactured public image of a well-to-do businessman that would attract his varied women of interest, Holmes exploited every conceivable aspect of the trusting American public in order to appease the commanding vices surging within him.
These vices would be numerous and varied. From insurance fraud, to theft, to murder, to kidnapping, Holmes existed as a personification of evil. At every turn—with Burnham working relentlessly mere miles away to produce a vision of America that would change and inspire the world—Holmes indulged in every act of depravity that he could conceive. As though possessed (a claim that Holmes would literally attest to after his arrest), H.H. truly lived up to his opening quote of being incapable of quelling his deviant impulses. Whether it was his numerous wives—all naïve women who sought out Chicago in hope of a new life within the burgeoning metropolis—or random hotel guests, or eventually the children of his accomplice…Holmes exhibited no mercy in satisfying the limitless depths of his immorality.
And, as Larson reminds the reader in the introduction, the book is not a work of fiction. Nonetheless, the author weaves this sprawling narrative with compelling and compulsive chapters—each one short and episodic so that the reader falls under the trance of believing that the work could be a fictional, historical thriller. More importantly and impressively, these chapters are written with such specificity and atmosphere as to completely transport the reader into the setting. Larson favors stark, smooth prose that paints a vivid picture of the subject and allows the reader to experience the range of emotions occurring within this revolutionary event: from the majesty of the Court of Honor to Annie Williams’ utter panic after Holmes locks her within a vault, turns on the valve for poisonous gas to be released, and listens to her final screams before death just outside the door.
The last third of the novel—with the Fair inexorably approaching its bleak end and the determined detective named Frank Geyer on Holmes’ elusive trail—Larson escalates the suspense to especially memorable and powerful effect. After Holmes’ many, many creditors finally coalesced to take him down, H.H. escaped from Chicago.
However, the hotelier did not flee alone; instead, he absconded with three children belonging to his former assistant: the drunken henchman Benjamin Pitezel. As Geyer tracks Holmes across the northern states, locates him in Toronto, and discovers the gruesome remains of the children murdered and mutilated by Holmes, the storytelling morphs into a riveting chase across America and Canada to finally deliver retribution upon the killer. Geyer’s descent into the cellar of the climactic Toronto home reads with as much suffocating suspense and dread as any horror novel, and the brutal aftermath—wherein the mother must identify her horribly mutilated child at the coroner’s office—delivers the unbearable emotions of devastation experienced by the victim that are often glossed over by similar works in the genre.
By the finale, wherein Larson interweaves the rapid destruction of the Fair following the assassination of Chicago’s mayor with Holmes’ arrest and execution, the author provides perspective on how the immense scope of these events affected the American public. Burnham with the World’s Fair—a prodigious monument to the power of accomplishment in American creativity, innovation, and inspiration; then with Holmes and the Murder Castle—a material edifice containing the darkest conceptions of a man’s mind and a literal house of horrors that contributed nothing but carnage and chaos.
In this striking juxtaposition, Larson underscores how these two men—existing under the same time, place, and tested by the same opportunity—opted to forge the material legacy of their lives. And in demonstrating these expanded boundaries of American accomplishment and depravity upon the advent of the twentieth century, Larson impresses a larger understanding of the scope of human nature; and more importantly, the significance of how each man chooses to actualize his own nature, despite his limited time, and how profoundly the consequences of these actions continue to echo beyond the ephemeral present.
Set against the historical backdrop of the California Gold Rush, Patrick DeWitts titular heroes are brothers Charlie and Eli Sisters, who are alsoSet against the historical backdrop of the California Gold Rush, Patrick DeWitt’s titular heroes are brothers Charlie and Eli Sisters, who are also assassins, on a mission to kill a prospector named Hermann Kermit Warm. This combination of memorably comic names, historical setting, and tone described within the premise completely encapsulates all one would need to know about this beautifully bizarre novel. Additionally, however, and to even higher distinction, the novel’s picaresque structure is wrought with exceptional creativity that further distinguishes this work from its many contemporary genre peers and deserves very high praise.
Narrated by Eli Sisters, the brothers serve as assassins for the Commodore—an authoritative figure that tasks the boys with jobs requiring more dangerous or fatalistic endings. The task at hand demands the brothers seek out and kill a one Hermann Kermit Warm—a prospector that has apparently stolen from the Commodore at the cost of his life. The novel is told with a picaresque structure of extremely short, yet memorable, narration of the brothers’ adventures and mishaps in their search for Warm across the Western landscape.
Tonally, the novel strikes a very rare and impressive balance between hilariously sharp dialogue and darkly comic situations that slowly navigate toward scenes of heartbreaking tragedy and acute poignancy. The only real tonal parallel that one may suggest is something close to that of the filmic works of the Coen Brothers, though DeWitt’s original voice still separates itself from those exceptional storytellers. Moreover, the tone complements the pacing of this episodic narrative to very impressive results. The book is an undeniable page-turner without ever losing the depth of its characterization or sacrificing any of the various emotional levels at play.
Though the book touches on a number of familiar Western genre staples—from assassins, to Mexican standoffs, to the larger themes of men imposing their morals upon others within a burgeoning civilization—the novel also successfully eschews many of these classical expectations to surprising and thought-provoking results. Despite the brothers’ job title of assassins, and the numerous violent acts that populate the narrative, the characters are imbued with a very touching and moving sense of pathos very unlike those found in the brutal landscapes occupied by traditional Western fiction. There are questions of moral ambiguity explored within this novel to incredibly successful results that bring to mind aspects of contemporary western writer S. Craig Zahler’s revelatory work (my favorite fiction writer: both A Congregation of Jackals and Wraiths of the Broken Land are masterpieces). Specifically, there are interludes wherein the protagonist confronts what may be the Devil/evil incarnate through the form of a little girl that remains one of the book’s most resonant and thought-provoking creations.
The Western genre stands as one of the best prisms for an author’s exploration of those thematic aspects of their obsession in tandem with those central themes to the American narrative at large. Themes of masculinity, spirituality, luck, the cost of success at the sacrifice of a man’s morals—these are all ideas embedded within the myth of American man and which the Western genre often explores through its setting of a terrain caught between civilization and barbaric tribalism. As the best Westerns are capable, The Sisters Brothers offers a fascinating and praiseworthy peak into DeWitt’s version of these central tenets: allowing an new perspective on both those time-honored traditions of the genre and those specific literary realizations brought forth by his singular imagination.
When I looked at the paintingOnly occasionally did I notice the chain on the finchs ankle, or think what a cruel life for a little livingSPOILERS
“When I looked at the painting…Only occasionally did I notice the chain on the finch’s ankle, or think what a cruel life for a little living creature—fluttering briefly, forced always to land in the same hopeless place.”
So the narrator—Theo Decker—describes the eponymous painting that becomes his obsession, his identity, and the catalyst for the majority of the plot in Donna Tartt’s latest novel: The Goldfinch. The book begins with the death of Theo’s mother in the wake of a terrorist attack within a museum, his subsequent theft of the Goldfinch painting, then follows the precocious teenager’s attempt to navigate life as an orphan within the sprawling metropolis that is New York City. Luckily, the devastated adolescent finds solace in the form of two guardians: the Barbours, an upper-class, sophisticated, yet flawed family that welcome Theo into their home; and Hobie, an antiques repairman that Theo finds after his business partner is killed within the same terrorist attack as his mother.
This first section begins incredibly strong—wallowing in atmospheric details that firmly situate the reader within the pandemonium of the attack and Theo’s rollercoaster range of emotions in its aftermath. A sequence that details Theo’s disoriented escape out of the charnel museum and into the rainy city streets evokes a grim psychological state that’s amplified to devastating effect upon his return to an empty apartment, where his mother is still missing. Tartt’s astounding ability to imbue sensory details into a manifestation of dread transform this simple scene set within a small apartment of a thirteen-year-old boy anxiously awaiting for the return of his mother into a torture chamber of agony. Every passing car, tick of the clock, groan of the floorboards becomes an omen of doom, as it becomes increasingly, obvious, and disturbingly clear that our narrator’s mother will never be returning to this apartment.
While too many books in this genre often drown themselves in the maudlin emotions that surround such a traumatic event, Tartt wisely eschews such melodrama in favor of focusing on Theo’s utter confusion and sense of existential self-removal. Though Theo certainly narrates with shades of the Holden Caulfield variety, his voice remains original and compelling throughout—his range of emotions always relatable and distinct: from the depths of depression, to laugh-out-loud descriptions, to the haze of drug addiction, to his suffocating love for friends and family, to the permanent abyss in his soul left by his mother’s death.
The real motions of the plot come into the play when Theo finds the gregarious giant Hobie, who takes an instant liking to the boy. More importantly, Hobie serves as Theo’s connection to Pippa—a young girl that caught his eye just before the museum attack that connects him to Hobie’s business partner. Nonetheless, the friendly oldster and the abandoned adolescent find an immediate connection—kindred souls with an unspoken bond of familial love for one another in the midst of having lost people so important to their day lives.
The arrival of Theo’s father—a deadbeat gambler that fled to Vegas after years of abuse and mean-spirited drunkenness—marks the major next section of the novel. Though he appears to have turned a corner since abandoning him, Theo’s father returns as a supposedly new man ready to resume his position as Theo’s father in Las Vegas. Here, at his new school in the desert, Theo meets the unforgettable Boris—a Russian immigrant and veritable alcoholic in his burgeoning teenage years that introduces Theo to the wild world of habitual drug use, while also providing a genuine and anchoring friendship amongst Theo’s roiling lifestyle.
Although the former and latter third are fantastic, this section remains the absolute highlight of the piece. Tartt peppers in small pieces of plot amongst incredible character development and allows even the most minor details to have incredibly awarding pay-offs, while still successfully managing multiple levels of narrative progression both in plot and theme. Specifically: the exploration of confused adolescence, Theo’s descent into drug addiction, the foundation of his friendship with Boris—all of these major milestone occurring while the inevitable dread of the stolen painting and Theo’s escalating drug abuse loom over each event with palpable dread.
Moreover, Tartt ingeniously deceives the audience by repeatedly introducing an ostensibly positive element into Theo’s life (namely his father’s newfound resolve) only to yank the rug away and reveal his true intentions at the worst possible moment to superb emotional effect. By the climax of this section, Tartt converges all these small set-ups sprinkled just moments before into a single catastrophic moment that has been so brilliantly, invisibly constructed that its relentless downfall is capable of leaving the reader visibly shaking in its vivid and painful execution. As Tartt completely detonates Theo’s world with applause-worthy aplomb before transitioning into the concluding chapters, she has already solidified this portion of the novel as prose that deserves to be recognizes and commended as some of the best contemporary writing in the field.
Although still engaging and expertly emotional, the last third remains the weakest of the major sections. Without going into spoilers, Theo has now become engaged in a variety of illicit affairs within the art community at large. All the while, the constant in Theo’s life of his purloined Goldfinch painting remains the unsubtle, yet perfect metaphor for his life of continuous change and simultaneous inescapable return to fate. This conclusion is only marred by the virtue of the plot suddenly overwhelming the previous character-driven execution of the previous section, along with certain passages of expository spouting that break the fourth-wall in their occasionally clunky reveals.
Still, the final chapters provide an opportunity for Theo to expound upon the novel’s various themes—most prominently, those pertaining to the importance of art in relation to the human condition and its legacy for the future. These passages sing with some of Tartt’s most gorgeous prose, and articulate the profound influence a single piece of art can instill over the life of both a single person and society at large. Conversely, this demonstrates how destructive the loss of single piece of art can hold for a society capable of permitting such destruction without calling for greater alarm and caution.
All of these ideas, of course, proven through Fabritius’ Goldfinch. A painting whose existence has come to define Theo’s life for the best and worst: the painting that led his mother to an early grave, that became his connection to her in death, that led to his meeting Hobie, then his best friend Boris, then to all the enormous highs and lows of conclusion—all due to the existence of this painting.
Moreover, the painting so perfectly personifies how such an entity can be responsible for the confluence of uncontrollable factors that later govern one’s life, as viewed through Theo’s own narrative. While at times, Theo’s life trajectory plunges to the absolute depths of despair—rendering destitute portraits of a life seeming to spin hopelessly out of control—Tartt’s final pages explicate in moving detail how the landscape between suffering and sublime often exist within the same vortex occupied and exemplified through art. Like the metaphorical Goldfinch chained to his perch, Theo recognizes that so much of the heartache in his life has also made manifest those moments worth living for: his friendship with Boris, his love for Pippa, his kinship with Hobie. More importantly, he recognizes that in telling this story how he’s made possible the transformation of his suffering and the sublime into a work of art as immortal and profound as the very painting responsible for inspiring him to produce it. As Tartt writes in a final passage: “And as much I’d like to believe there’s a truth beyond illusion, I’ve come to believe that there’s no truth beyond illusion. Because, between ‘reality’ on the one hand, and the point where the mind strikes reality, there’s a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic.”