Thursday, June 25, 2015

Book Review: "The Devil in the White City" by Erik Larson

"The Devil in the White City" by Erik Larson
390 pages (plus notes and bibliography)
First published in 2003
My rating: 4 out of 5
Image from Goodreads

The Short Of It:
This easy-to-read non-fiction book is a dual narrative about the head architect of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair and a serial killer who hunted the city's young women during the same time period. It was educational, creepy and fascinating!

The Long Of It:
The story of the Chicago World's Fair in 1893 -- the stunning White City where things like the Ferris wheel, the zipper and Juicy Fruit gum made their debut -- is interesting by itself, but add in a cold and calculating serial killer on the loose and you've got a page-turner of a tale.

Chicago architect Daniel Burnham was selected as the fair's director of works, overseeing the design, construction and implementation of the fair. We meet him as a young man -- rejected from both Harvard and Yale -- and follow him as he rises to become the greatest architect of the time. It is in Burham's chapters that we watch the fair's progress, from lobbying for it to be held in Chicago to meetings of the top architectural minds of the day (in which they agreed that all the buildings would be white -- thus "the White City") to construction delays and disasters to the fair itself, in all it's splendid, immense, humbling glory. Writes Larson: "The fair was so perfect, its grace and beauty like an assurance that for as long as it lasted nothing truly bad could happen to anyone, anywhere."

Unfortunately that was far from the truth, as evidenced by our other main character, Dr. H. H. Holmes -- a stone-cold killer with a proclivity for beautiful, vulnerable young women -- who took great advantage of the huge influx of people to Chicago. A murderous mastermind, Holmes constructed a large office/apartment building and made sure to include an airtight vault and a crematory (which he told builders was a glassworks kiln). No one knows how many victims Holmes killed before he was caught, but the estimates ranged all the way up to 200. In prison Holmes wrote, "I was born with the devil in me. I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than the poet can help the inspiration to sing."

Larson writes with vivid detail -- and it'll make you appreciate the 21st century! He brings late 1800s Chicago back to life for the reader, from the Jack-the-Ripper-obsessed Whitechapel Club to the exorbitant belly-ache-inducing menus of the day's fanciest dinners to the rather horrifying pork slaughterhouses. I particularly liked this colorful passage:

"In poor neighborhoods garbage mounded in alleys and overflowed giant trash boxes that became banquet halls for rats and bluebottle flies. Billions of flies. The corpses of dogs, cats, and horses often remained where the fell. In January they froze into disheartening poses; in August they ballooned and ruptured...In rain any street not paved with macadam oozed a fragrant muck of horse manure, mud, and garbage that swelled between granite blocks like pus from a wound. Chicago awed visitors and terrified them."

While "The Devil in the White City" -- particularly the Burham chapters -- could be slightly dry at times, overall it was a great book. It read like a novel and kept my interest throughout, and I learned so much about historic Chicago in general and the World's Fair in specific.

My one complaint about the book is that I wished it had more photos! The buildings and characters were described in great detail, but I really like visuals for stuff I'm reading about. I came across a perfect complimentary book at the library called "The Chicago World's Fair of 1893: A Photographic Record" by Stanley Appelbaum and I highly recommend a similar companion piece while reading this book. Larson tried his best, but words alone can't do justice to the grandeur and scale of the fair's architecture.

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