Sunday, February 25, 2018

Book Review: The Devil in the White City

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed AmericaThe Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Two men, two stories, one great World’s Fair. It’s the 1890s, and the city of Chicago has just been given the honor of hosting the next World’s Fair.

Daniel Burnham was the lead architect of the Chicago World’s Fair, and H.H. Holmes was a serial killer who lived in Chicago at that time. Larson narrates these two stories in alternating chapters. Like most readers, I assumed the two stories would connect at some point, but they never do. Nonetheless, I found both stories intriguing and incredibly well researched.

The story Daniel Burnham of the creation of the “White City”—the World’s Fair Park—was interesting but not exactly riveting. While the minutia of all the ups and downs of building the fair got tiresome, I did get a fantastic history lesson. Also, I loved the appearances of famous people like Buffalo Billy, Annie Oakley, Theodore Dreiser, and Helen Keller at the fair.

Of course, the serial killer is always going to be the more compelling story. H.H. Holmes was known as a handsome, outgoing man— literally a ladykiller. While construction of the fair was going on at an incredible pace, Holmes was also working at a fast pace: collecting women, loving them, and then killing them in his specially constructed death building right in the center of town.

Again, the stories really have little to do with each other, but Burnham and Holmes might be consider polar opposites representing man’s capacity for good and his potential for evil. On one side, Burnham is creating this perfect, white Heaven-like city, yet nearby, Holmes has created his own hellish torture chamber. What lies beneath the veneer of whitewash?

All in all, this was a fascinating book, although I was, frankly, bored in some of the Burnham chapters. Photographs or drawings would have greatly enhanced these chapters. Sometimes I skimmed through the Burnham chapters just to get to the serial killer chapters—I’m not sure what that says about me as a reader or as a person, although I suspect that’s not uncommon.

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