I Enjoy Unhappy Books*

I recently picked up a copy of David King’s Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Nazi-Occupied Paris from the First Floor’s bestseller collection. It’s about a French doctor by the name of Marcel Petiot who was charged with 27 murders after body parts started showing up in strange places in Paris. I haven’t started it yet, but it looks promising. And it’s another entry in my growing catalog of depressing titles.

Where did my obsession with unhappy books begin? I think I can credit my 12th grade AP History teacher, who made us do research papers in the summer before our senior year. We had to choose from a list of subjects, and by the time the list got around to me, the pickings were mighty slim. What did I end up with? Love Canal. There’s a cheery subject for a sixteen year-old, what with all the cancer and the birth defects.

I don’t remember exactly which books I used for my report, but I do know that they came from this very library. I think one of them was Love Canal: My Story by Lois Marie Gibbs, which is still in circulation today (if you’re wondering, Lois Marie Gibbs is the housewife who founded the Love Canal Homeowner’s Association and started raising a ruckus about the place).

But it wasn’t until I started working here that the unhappy books bug really took hold – and I came across Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America. This book is just smashing. It’s the history of a serial killer doctor (sounds familiar, eh?) and at the same time the history of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and the architects and workers who fought to build a magical “White City” out of nothing. (For more dismembering doctors, try Thunderstruck, also by Larson. It’s good, but not quite as good as The Devil in the White City – which is, admittedly, a tough act to follow.)

The next book in my list elicited an “(expletive deleted), Amy!” from one of my coworkers. It’s A Slow Death : 83 Days of Radiation Sickness, published by Japan’s NHK TV. On September 30, 1999, a group of workers in northeastern Japan were exposed to lethal doses of radiation when the uranium solution that they were refining (with funnels and buckets!) went critical. This book chronicles the demise of one of the workers from his first day in the hospital, when he looked like he had a bit of a sunburn, to his death at day 83, when…well, read it if you want to. It’s terrible. But educational.

Keeping with the radiation theme, may I suggest Voices from Chernobyl, by Svetlana Alexievich? It’s a collection of interview transcripts that tells the stories of soldiers, evacuees, scientists, looters, doctors, government officials, and families who lived and worked near the reactor. It’s bleak and fascinating and you won’t be able to put it down. My only complaint is with the way the narrative wanders and flows – while this makes the book all the more eerie and powerful, it’s sometimes hard to tell who’s talking. Citing this one in a research paper would be a pain. (Bonus: This site has an excellent collection of photographs from the Ukranian National Chernobyl Museum. Watch out for the museum’s page though, because not all of it is in English.)

If you’d prefer a variety of unhappy endings, try Deborah Blum’s The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York. It’s much…jauntier than the other books I’ve mentioned, probably because of that Jazz Age thing. In it you’ll meet the dynamic duo of medical examiner Charles Norris and toxicologist Alexander Gettler, learn about poisoned pies, and discover how to properly process a brain for toxicology experiments. Each chapter is named for (and deals with) a specific poison, which is also mighty cool. (Bonus: the chapter on radium spurred me to learn more about radium dial painters, which led me to a journal called Radium, made available online by your wonderful local public library. Warning: some of the pictures are very gross. But very historic.)

And finally, to end this post on a (relatively) less grisly note, you might try Rick Geary’s amazingly fun series, A Treasury of Victorian Murder. There are books about James A. Garfield, Jack the Ripper, Abraham Lincoln, Lizzie Borden, and even H.H. Holmes, the murdering doctor of The Devil in the White City. They’re all well-researched and beautifully illustrated, and I guarantee that you’ll learn something new from each one.

– Amy

*Alternate title: Some Books About Radiation, Dismemberment, and Other Icky Things


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12 responses to “I Enjoy Unhappy Books*

  1. Dinny Rex

    My brother just thinks I’m weird, because I told him I didn’t like happy endings. His exact words were, “You’re so depressing!”
    My argument? There are too many happy endings. Sad endings are different, so that’s why I like them. Well, also the part that they’re sad, and the fact that you can’t help but sniffle every time you read it.

  2. I’m like that about tv as well…forensics, murder, serial rape/murder, disappearances, medical examination. It’s much more powerful if it is grisly & true, and has a just conclusion. Back in the 90s I read a book by Jerry Bledsoe called Blood Games. It was creepy and grim and violent, but it was a great story.

  3. I used to be drawn to unhappy books (and I also used to belong to a book group that ONLY picked depressing books–aargh!) but then I got tired of feeling sad. So now I just read books that make me smile or laugh. :)

    • i rather like fun books as well – jasper fforde has a couple of series(es?) that often make me snort painfully. and while i don’t read them myself, my boyfriend is a big terry pratchett fan who often reads the most absurd passages of discworld books aloud to me. this is why i know all about “Where’s My Cow?”

      – amy

  4. Thanks for sharing these book recommendations. I agree with your comment that you can learn more from sad endings. I think that I like inconclusive endings even better, though, because they force you to analyze the trajectory of events into the future. Going through school, Lois Lowry’s The Giver trilogy, and later, 1984 and Brave New World. I think if we focus on the happy things, we miss out on so much knowledge and wisdom that life has to offer us, both in reflecting on the past and looking towards the future.

  5. Emily

    You should check out The Killer of Little Shepherds. It’s a similar book, full of grusome research, and it details the rise of European forensic medicine. Similar to Devil in the White City, it contrasts a Good Guy – here a genius doctor and the father of forensic medicine- and a Bad Guy- here a vagrant sociopath. Larson could have told it better, but it was still a great read!

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