I started to read The Devil in the White City as part of a personal challenge to read something outside of my norm. It is a proud moment when I can admit that a personal challenge has been fulfilled.
Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City has been an on and off bestseller since its release in 2003. I first heard about it years ago on NPR and was intrigued… but it’s non-fiction, and history. And not something I would ordinarily read. I filed it away on the back burner until this year when I instituted my challenge.
The book is written in a novelized format with Larson presenting the facts in a narrative stream. The “story” follows the events leading up to the 1893 Chicago’s World Fair. During a time when men were striving for chaotic beauty a man, H.H. Holmes, a con artist and sociopath, was building himself an empire of murder and death. Daniel H. Burnham, the architect responsible for erecting the fair, shares the second narrative along with a cast of players from the day who were also integral in the fair’s success.
The book spans roughly the four years leading up to the fair and the time afterwards when the police were trying to apprehend Holmes. Burnham’s chapters, at the start, are tedious and slow. They are peppered with mismanagement, failures, and trivialities. The fair took a lot of effort to bring about and Burnham’s chapters imply the difficulties well. Much of his section reveals men (architects) fighting about how the fair should be… or rather, how their name should be impressed upon the history books about the fair. Larson has a very keen eye for detail.
Holmes chapters, by contrast, are lush and vivid. The years leading up to his murder spree, the completion of his “murder castle”, the women he wooed, the lives he took, the people he conned… this part of the book is fantastic. And I enjoyed it with bated breath. The time leading up to opening day in the other narrative, however, was long. And grueling.
Once the fair opened up, however, it was very much a “game on” kind of moment.
The fair itself was an image unto itself. I was sucked into the descriptions of the fair ground, and especially the people of the day who attended. What a time period this was; a marvel of modern invention and fantasy. Where else might you encounter Helen Keller, Nicola Tesla, Edison, Mark Twain, and Susan B. Anthony? To say less of Annie Oakley and Buffalo Bill, the Persian dancers, the multitude of International guests, and the theme of honouring Christopher Columbus (it was the 400th anniversary of the founding of the Americas). All together this provides a thrilling panoply for the era and a reader of historic settings.
For the first 200 pages I would have awarded a lower score. I was just too underwhelmed at this part. The latter part of the book, however, is where all of Larson’s ardent research comes to life. I will meet somewhere in the middle and give this book 4 out of 5 stars. I am glad I read it, though I would probably never read it a second time. Despite my fascination with H.H. Holmes.