How does Erik Larson build suspense in The Devil in The White City?

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kipling2448 | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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A story, whether fiction or nonfiction, that combines an unidentified serial killer and a rare but massive concentration of people – in this case, a World’s Fair – pretty much builds its own tension.  The subject of Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City, a nonfiction account of such an occurrence involving the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, lends itself, then, to a narrative flow that implicitly and explicitly builds tension as the story unfolds.  As the eNotes summary, a link to which is provided below, of Larson’s book notes, the author employs the repetitive technique of transitional warnings of danger ahead.  In his prologue, “Aboard the Olympic,” Larson describes the myriad disasters that plagued the efforts at preparing for an event on the scale of a world’s fair, and then alerts the reader to the threat that will hover over the fair’s proceedings once the preparations are over and the public descends on the site:

“That something magical had occurred in that summer of the world’s fair was beyond doubt, but darkness too had touched the fair.  Scores of workers had been hurt or killed building the dream . . . Fire had killed fifteen more, and an assassin had transformed the closing ceremony what was to have been the century’s greatest celebration into a vast funeral.  Worse had occurred too, although these revelations emerged only slowly.  A murderer had moved among the beautiful things Burnham had created.”

Larson then goes on to describe the horrific discoveries at the mansion where killings took place, noting that the local club was named for the London location where the notorious Jack the Ripper had carried out his brutal slayings.  This, as noted, is Larson’s prologue.  He has adroitly set the stage for the suspense-filled story to follow, and takes pains to alert the reader along the way that more tragedy is to come.  In the section title “The Black City,” Larson, again referencing the “Jack the Ripper” killing spree in London, he describes the atmosphere in the growing metropolis of Chicago, with its inevitable violence and murders, but noting that the events associated with the fair would open a new chapter in the violence that plagued most large cities:  “. . .things were changing.  Everywhere one looked the boundary between the moral and the wicked seemed to be degrading.”  And, then, he introduces the threat:

“And in Chicago a young handsome doctor stepped from a train, his surgical valise in hand.  He entered a world of clamor, smoke and steam, refulgent with the scents of murdered cattle and pigs.  He found it to his liking.”

Death, Larson is emphasizing not too subtly, has come to the world’s fair.  And thus ends that opening chapter.  The direct connection to the “Jack the Ripper” murders has been firmly established, with the identity of that serial murderer never established but often linked to a London physician, the parallel unmistakable.  The specter of a serial killer lurking amongst the families with children densely crowded into the expansive fair grounds is a scene that lends itself to considerable suspense.  As noted above, however, Larson will continue to build suspense through transitional phrases designed to augur ill.  The following chapter, “The Trouble is Just Begun,” again injects a sense of foreboding.  Describing the difficulties inherent in constructing and operating an activity on the scale and of the complexity of a world’s fair, Larson depicts the anguish of those tasked with carrying out this formidable endeavor:  “Ultimately, these setbacks proved to be minor ones for Burnham and Root.  Far worse was to occur, and soon . . .”

Such transitional warnings of horrific events to come is the main literary tool Larson employed in building suspense in The Devil in the White City.  The fact of a serial killer lurking among the population, unaware of the threat in its midst, however, is suspenseful enough without the added signs of impending doom.

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