I guessed when I read the introduction of this book that I might not like certain aspects of this telling. Oh how right I was!
This book is a quick read--granted, I'm not finished yet (only about 1/4), but I didn't spend much time reading it either. The writing is smooth and it held my interest. It is really readable. It did try too hard at times, for example with the constant foreshadowing, and the veracity/objectivity quotient could have been more, well, present. But the problem is not with the writing, per se.
I suppose it comes down to my objections about sensationalizing violence against women. Larson is constantly uses foreshadow to try and pique your interest. I found it unsettling that Larson kept trying to titillate me about grisly murders of young women. Larson goes out of his way to tell you how beautiful and voluptuous and they all are, how "rapturous" their bodies. I'm assuming he means rapturous for the straight, Western, current mainstream male gaze, because we really don't know anything about these women and how they relate to their own bodies. And they're so "young," too--a word that can be applied as reasonably to a person of 5 years old as of 35. And really, what does it matter their age or what they looked like? How does it even make a difference? What is he trying to say? That their beauty, large bosoms, or age were the "cause" or "reason" for their deaths? After all, Larson starts this book out with an epigraph from the murderer attesting that he was born to kill, he just couldn't help it--even though his deliberations, planning, and actions in daily life point to the contrary. Or is Larson's meaning less victim-blaming and more of a slasher flick gore porn tactic: "See this nubile and attractive woman...now see her being tortured, hacked to pieces, and incinerated!!"? Is it that Larson only expects you to care about a victim that is conventionally attractive? Either way, I don't appreciate it.
I absolutely understand that these murders happened and that they are horrific. That's why I find it distasteful to put so much focus on Holmes and what he did and what he thought and how people interacted with him and what his childhood was like; and conversely, when the focus on the victims, to talk only about their appearance. Each of those victims had childhoods and plans and people they interacted with too. I can tolerate reading about a large amount of physical violence without finding it distasteful; many books that I find profound, moving, and important have very violent parts. Sometimes the violence is part of what makes a book important, as in books about wars and genocide. But in what I read of the book, the victims are portrayed as completely one dimensional, characterized solely as young and beautiful: that is also a violent act, albeit more subtle.
There were other instances of the same sort of weird, subtle hostility towards women. For instance, this statement, thrown in when relating a dinner party meeting for the fair's architects: "There was not a woman in sight." In context this is a complete non sequitur. It is a meeting of architects designing the fair; this is the 1890s: there are no women architects. Why would
a woman be there? Indeed the only time Larson mentioned women in this story line prior to this was once to say Burnham and Root got married, and second to say "By 1886, he and Margaret were the parents of five children." It's not like Burnham's story line is teeming with females. Why draw attention to it now? Just to point out the fact that women do not participate in anything important, to remind us that they only exist to be slaughtered? Is that why? Is there some other reason? I am honestly curious and it is driving me crazy wondering what compelled him to insert that sentence in that place. [Update: I am happy to report that I was wrong about there being no female architects: there was ONE, who arrived on the scene much later, but I am unhappy to report that she was not given much importance in the book, and her little piece ends by being carted off to an insane asylum...so...]
There is a part in the book where Larson talks about all the disappearances in Chicago. He says, "The women were presumed to have been ravished." Ravished, yes--that's a nice euphemism for "raped & murdered," isn't it? Ravish, a word my dictionary defines with "(often be ravished) fill (someone) with intense delight; enrapture." That the word refers to both rape and delight is not a mistake. And that Larson used this word is not a mistake either. And that is why I put down the book and wrote this review.
After having written this and let it sit for a few hours, I think one of the reasons I'm so fed up is that it's the second book nonfiction book I've read in two days that trivializes rape and violence against women. Yesterday's was memoir-ish, but this one...should have been more objective. He did so much ~research~ and blah blah blah. Many reviewers make the point that the stories of the two main men are not connected at all. So why choose Holmes? Why not, as one reviewer suggested, choose to tell the story a brothel madam's life, or a Zulu person who was at the fair? Or one of the new young working women, or one of the guys working at the Union Stock Yard, or a grip-car operator? You could easily tell the story of Gilded Age Chicago through them. But that, of course, would not be nearly so ~!~OMG~!~ riveting or sensational. So he makes the choice to use women's brutalized bodies to make his book a bestseller.
So those are some thoughts I have had part way through. I'm going to keep reading but I predict that I'm going to leave this book at 1 star because trivializing violence against women really bothers me. The rest of the book is actually quite enjoyable but this is a dealbreaker for me when it comes to rating a book.