When asking someone to define narrative nonfiction, you will likely receive a flutter of the hand and an “Oh, just read The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson and you will understand.” Published in 2003, it is considered to be in the pinnacle of narrative nonfiction. Journalists, novelists, and readers alike all seem to have an intellectual crush on Larson, and for good reason.
The story weaves between the architects behind the creation of the Chicago World’s Fair in the 1890s, a moment that defined the city and changed the path of our nation forever, and H.H. Holmes, a serial killer who took advantage of the chaos of the times to pursue his morbid interest.
Larson acquaints his readers with 19th century Chicago: a smelly setting, he informs us. His descriptions paint a picture that the reader can see, smell, and generally feel a part of. The sense of the times is much more informative and memorable (to me) than any individual datum Larson provides.
While reading this book, I felt as guilty as if I were reading fiction. (Which is, not that guilty at all). I found myself chattering to friends and coworkers about this book I was reading, which perfectly captured a fascinating, definitive moment in our nation’s history (the Chicago world’s fair), with the undercurrent of the serial killer (Holmes) whose work thrived, unnoticed in the mayhem and anarchy of the time: “It was so easy to disappear, so easy to deny knowledge, so very easy in the smoke and din to mask that something dark had taken root. This was Chicago, on the eve of the greatest fair in history.”
Let us take a moment to admire that prose.
What Larson really shares is the history of our country. Serial killers were the least of our ancestors’ concerns in the 1890s, when they were trying to assert themselves as The Best at Everything in the World in the fields of business, art, architecture, wealth, and novelty. Horrific deaths were commonplace, whether caused by horses, carriages, trains– or people. Better to ignore them and secure America’s seat as The Greatest.
Larson never says it, but he implies again and again, that Chicago had its priorities fascinatingly out of whack. Its citizens were so distracted by visions of fame and fortune that they did not notice the psychopath across the street. Daily deaths (many at the hands of Holmes) went largely unnoticed. Nobody outside of immediate family members cared. And Holmes got away with it for years, despite the dozens of people who suspected foul play but simply didn’t bother to report him, knowing that nothing would have been done anyway.
Larson foreshadows like the greatest novelist, teasing the reader with his knowledge of the outcome, in which the stakes are real lives. A simple sentence at the end of an informative passage frequently put me at the edge of my seat, spurring me to continue reading to find out how the fair could possibly ready on time, to find out what Holmes would do next.
Larson mentions in his “Notes and Sources” section at the end of the book, that he utilized no researchers and no internet, instead relying exclusively on newspapers, letters, and other primary sources for his information. We can trust him. There is no fabrication here; truth really is stranger than fiction. Larson admits what he was not able to find out, inviting the reader to join in the mystery that is real life.
Much of the mystery of H.H. Holmes and his “Castle of Horrors” remains unknown, mostly because people in the time did not care enough to find answers before it was too late. In a way, the gaps in knowledge contribute to the reader’s experience. This is a true mystery: a man of devilish character who built a murderous mansion, which conveniently burned down upon his arrest, taking its secrets with it. No one will ever know exactly what happened there, and Larson does not pretend that he has the answer. Only a few clues give us the insight into this man, who seems to have largely gone unnoticed in our nation’s history.
The goal of narrative nonfiction is for it to read as easily as fiction while informing as well as a newspaper. It is a daunting task, for which few are suited. Larson’s prose is enchanting, his story grounded and surrounded by the truth. So if you want to write or read narrative nonfiction, or if you want to be a good writer or reader in general, read the honorable work of Larson.
Also, I do believe Leonardo DiCaprio is rumored to be starring in the film version of this book. I will let you know if it’s any better than The Great Gatsby. Or if he can pull of this mustache: