The Devil of Hype City

I know I’m late to the party that has been going on between the covers of The Devil in the White City.  The hype is deserved and will no doubt grow once the movie adaptation makes waves on social media.  I’m just glad I got to the book before the cover became a marketing tool for the movie.  Yeah, I’m the sort of reader who hates reading a book in public that has a movie poster for a cover because I’m concerned you might think I’m reading the book because the movie’s coming out soon-ish.  Well, you’re right, but the cover helps hide the fact that I am a tool of social media hype.

Even without the gruesome and shocking details about H.H. Holmes and his castle of death the book captures the excitement of seeing the future from an end of the century perspective and proves that the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago sparked the world into the technological age where tunnel-vision product is all that matters.  You see, serial killer and proto-pickup artist Holmes was just as much a product of the fair as the Ferris Wheel or Pabst Blue Ribbon.  The only difference is no one commissioned his work.  Otherwise, and if you allow Holmes the loosely guesstimated 200+ murders, then you might say that Holmes was just as good at killing people for his own selfish needs as the construction of the fair killed workers while they built rich men’s dreams.  No matter what improvements to life and liberty that came of the fair’s construction, like unions and the eight hour work day, the old white men in their finery were always concerned with one thing; showing off their genius.  Once the fair was over none of the big wigs cared about the little people in the middle of economic crisis because it was time to move on to the next project using credentials from the fair to inflate their commission.  Holmes’ actions were reminiscent of this attitude: seduce, use, kill, repeat.  The only difference is that Holmes cleaned up his messes as best he could, while the savvy architects and politicians let Chicago go back to its filthy ways once they were done harvesting the fair’s proceeds.

But to say nothing good came of the fair is a gross error.  The modern work week and hours were enforced, laborers unionized, health codes developed, and the rules broken in aesthetics and architecture paved new roads to a brighter future.  Unfortunately, with such rapid development of dreams in society the 1893 World’s Fair seems to have solidified the trope of the anonymous man allowed to cultivate his darkest desires.  Not only was Holmes killing women in a cycle, but another man by the name of Prendergast was left alone with his delusions of grandeur and the shocking end to his short story in The Devil in the White City shows that individuals who feel pushed to the anonymous margins of a society they wish to be a part of will react violently either in secret or openly.  We know there were secret killers and openly violent men like Holmes and Prendergast before 1893 in the likes of Jack the Ripper and John Wilkes Booth, but it seems the World’s Fair and industrialization in general became the primordial ooze of sociopathic nurturing.  More recent iterations of Holmes and Prendergast are found in “The Grim Sleeper” who stalked prostitutes in south L.A. earlier this decade and your pick of this week’s raging gunman.  The painstaking amount of work to make both Holmes and Prendergast human to the reader in The Devil in the White City  gets you to see their motives and understand, while the talking heads of today close their reports with “we’ll never know why, so let’s move on to arguing instead of doing.”

My take away from The Devil in the White City is that no matter how far we push civilization, and no matter how pretty it looks as a whole, if the people are forgotten and wasted in the process then we will reap a diseased and poisonous future despite its many glittering entertainments.

The Bride Wore Black

Cornell Woolrich nails the Femme Fatale trope with a fresh twist in The Bride Wore Black.  From beginning to end, you’re routing for the mysterious woman who is killing off men with clever wit and shocking determination.  It isn’t until the final pages that you discover the why? of it all, but from the start Woolrich weaves a rich cast of characters, but what makes you burn through the pages is that by getting familiar with the victims you get to know the murderess, who remains nameless for the majority of the novel and a mystery shrouded behind the designs of the killings.

Many stories have trouble keeping things secret and still remain interesting.  The Bride Wore Black serves up five distinct murders without divulging its core until the very end, which makes me wonder if I’d be just as thrilled with the story had Woolrich never revealed the big why?, which actually turns out to be very simple.  Are we so enamored by violent death that it is enough to show it without moral bearings or reason in the end?  I wonder about this because for most of the novel the reader is not given anything to go on.  A woman is killing men, planning in fine detail each murder, each more grisly than the last and more desperate as she gets closer to her unknown goal.  Woolrich offers nothing and it occurred to me that I was assuming she was in the right from the get go.  I had assumed the men she was killing off had wronged her in someway, that the murders were justified homicides even if the law both as portrayed in the book and in real life were and would be opposed to vigilante justice.  I assumed killing people was sound and I overlooked the fact that my justifications for her actions didn’t have any sort of logical foundation.  The novel doesn’t force itself on you, the reader willingly hopes for the woman to succeed and you discard logic and morality believing this mystery femme has done the brain work for you – and for the right(eous) reasons.

At the very end, a quick plot twist pulls the proverbial rug out from under the murderess, and the reader.  I’m too late for the Spoiler Alert, maybe, but Woolrich’s prose is like strong magic tricks, even when you’ve seen how they work, the trick still hooks you every time.  The Bride Wore Black will hex you just like black magic and the curse is condoning murder, something none of us would ever do, right?

Daughters, Lock Up Your Mothers

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn makes you question all the things your mother did while you were growing up.  Were her deeds in the name of love? Did she nurture your best character, or was her love designed to feed her selfish needs using you as social currency?  Sharp Objects takes a look at a kind of love that turns life into a currency used for one’s own superficial survival.

Camille, a journalist, uses people to get to the story that her readers feed on, since she reports on crime, her stories feed her audience’s vicarious need to see a world no one wants to be a part of, but still desire a glimpse.  Through reporting she carves vicious images into her readers through her words just as she literally cuts words into her own skin.  Right as she is ready to heal from her troubled past, a crime develops  in her Missouri hometown.  Flynn tells the story from Camille’s point of view, and Camille is constantly fighting between her desire to leave people alone and her job where she must invade the personal space of families, witnesses, and suspects in order to tell the story.  Camille chooses to disconnect people from their humanity and dissolve them into an element of her story.  Even as she means well, her devotion to the story ends up victimizing people already in a state of grief and fear over a very real murder.

Camille’s mother, aptly named Adora, is hard to pin down from the start, but her motives become clear through well-timed discoveries on Camille’s part that unveil the crime she’s reporting on and also her own past.  Is her mother trying to hide knowledge of the crime?  Or is she merely cold towards Camille because she is the black sheep of the family.  Adora’s love is closely guarded and is paid out with a miser’s view of what she’s getting in return.  Through Adora you begin to understand where Camille got her manipulative skills for journalism and her fight to hold herself to a higher degree of moral behavior begins to take its toll in alcohol, flesh that begs to be cut, and a past that has more and more to do with the present as Camille digs deeper.

Flynn’s pacing and timing for character reveals is just as thrilling as in Gone Girl.  The mechanics of Sharp Objects run smoothly.  From Camille’s festering word-scars interjecting into her thoughts, to twists in the plot that I never saw coming but in retrospect were hidden within character actions, Sharp Objects tells a solid thriller in a familiar detective story frame work.  What makes Flynn’s story fresh is her calculated deconstruction of love and the social bonds we hold so dear in our everyday lives.  After reading Sharp Objects you might feel better being alone because we are only condemned for our good deeds and our victims remain mute witnesses, unconscious or dead.

Grab some bandages and rubbing alcohol.  You will get paper cuts on this fast, disturbing read.