Tuesday, April 7, 2020

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
Release Date - February 11, 2003
Publisher Website -  Penguin Random House Canada
Publisher Social Media - Twitter
Pages -  464 pages
My Rating - 3/5

Here is the Goodreads synopsis
Erik Larson's gifts as a storyteller are magnificently displayed in this rich narrative of the master builder, the killer, and the great fair that obsessed them both.

Two men, each handsome and unusually adept at his chosen work, embodied an element of the great dynamic that characterized America's rush toward the twentieth century. The architect was Daniel Hudson Burnham, the fair's brilliant director of works and the builder of many of the country's most important structures, including the Flatiron Building in New York and Union Station in Washington, D.C. The murderer was Henry H. Holmes, a young doctor who, in a malign parody of the White City, built his "World's Fair Hotel" just west of the fairgrounds—a torture palace complete with dissection table, gas chamber, and 3,000-degree crematorium. Burnham overcame tremendous obstacles and tragedies as he organized the talents of Frederick Law Olmsted, Charles McKim, Louis Sullivan, and others to transform swampy Jackson Park into the White City, while Holmes used the attraction of the great fair and his own satanic charms to lure scores of young women to their deaths. What makes the story all the more chilling is that Holmes really lived, walking the grounds of that dream city by the lake.

The Devil in the White City draws the reader into a time of magic and majesty, made all the more appealing by a supporting cast of real-life characters, including Buffalo Bill, Theodore Dreiser, Susan B. Anthony, Thomas Edison, Archduke Francis Ferdinand, and others. In this book the smoke, romance, and mystery of the Gilded Age come alive as never before.
You routinely see The Devil in the White City on many lists of the best true crime books. It's presented as one of the best books in the genre. I was eager to dive in to a story exploring H. H. Holmes and his crimes against the backdrop of the Chicago's World Fair. That is not what this book is and those picking it up solely for that reason will find themselves disappointed.

Erik Larson's interests are held by the history that surrounds the events of the building of the fair, and the historical significance of the events of  that time. H. H. Holmes and his crimes are woven in simply because he was part of the larger collective that shaped that time period. It is not, however, his story. It's written for the history buffs who are more interested in the setting and Chicago itself at this particular point in history. I left the book with no further understanding of the details of H. H. Holmes or his crimes, but do feel like I know more about Chicago, its history, and the World's Fair.

The research that went into the novel is evident. Larson uses interviews, letters, and various other materials to include quotes attributed to the various individuals involved. The writing style feels more like reading fiction as a result, and the novel does very much read like a story being created at times. It makes for a enjoyable reading experience, particularly if the subject matter appeals to you.

I was amazed to learn the number of things we are familiar with today that were introduced because of the fair. The Ferris wheel was created and showcased as part of this fair. Shredded wheat made its debut. Walt Disney's father, Elias, worked on the construction of the fair and Walt would be inspired by his visit to the fair which would reflect in his later works. Those are just some of the examples of how this one event impacted the future that we know today. The history is rich and certainly fascinating.

Those only interested in the true crime aspect of the story should look elsewhere to dive into the H. H. Holmes case. I do, however, recommend this for anyone whose interest is piqued by the setting, and the Chicago World's Fair along with the history behind it. This is a book that will be exactly what you are looking for. It may not have been what I anticipated, but I can recognize that it is a well written, highly researched novel that will appeal to any of those whose interests are held by the city of Chicago and its history. It is a fascinating look at the building of an event whose echo is still felt today.

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