The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, & Madness at the Fair that Changed America - Erik Larson

I forget where I first heard about this book, but I finally read it for a book club (for which, as usual, I missed the actual meeting). The book is a well-researched account of the creation of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and the concurrent story of Dr. H. H. Holmes, a charismatic young doctor whose murders far outnumbered Jack the Ripper's.

We experience the events mostly through the eyes of two men: Holmes, the murderer, and Daniel Burnham, the architect who became the fair's director of works. Larson switches back and forth between the challenges Burnham faced in making the fair happen and Holmes' manipulations and plots, from insurance fraud to the building of his deathly "World's Fair Hotel." Either half of the book would have captured my interest by itself, but side by side they paint a picture that is both beautiful and horrific.

Some of the book reminded me of Paul Harvey's "The Rest of the Story." Larson includes many anecdotes about now-famous figures, leaving out the full name until the story has been told ... except sometimes I don't recognize the names and it loses its effect. For instance, I haven't read Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie, so the part about Dreiser didn't really mean much to me. I also wish that I knew Chicago better simply for geographical references: when he refers to this street or that, or where things are now compared to where they were at the time, it's hard for me to picture the locations.

It was nice, however, coming to the book without too much foreknowledge of the fair, because it meant that many of Larson's surprises were in fact surprising. The sheer immensity of the buildings is hard to picture, but Larson's descriptions will make any reader wish they could have been alive to see the fair. At the same time, the tales of Holmes, in a world before "psychopath" became a common label, is chilling and nearly unbelievable. That he could have committed so many crimes without being caught and hardly raising suspicion is terrifying.

The Devil in the White City isn't light reading, but it's definitely worth it. There are some areas where you might get bogged down—if you prefer action to architecture, for instance—but I thought there was always enough happening in the narrative to keep me going.

Fed to jonathan's brain | October 10, 2004