Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Devil in the White City

by Erik Larson

The Devil in the White City, Larson's historical true crime book, tells two stories; one of a devil, and another of a white city.  The devil, H.H. Holmes was the most prolific serial killer of his age, murdering anywhere from nine to two hundred people, mostly in Chicago at the end of the nineteenth century.  The 'white city' refers to the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, more commonly known as the World's Fair.

As Holmes was about his deeds in Chicago at the time of the Fair, Larson tells us both stories within the same book, coordinating events in chronological order, and explaining how the large number of tourists brought into Chicago for the Fair provided Holmes with many opportunities to act on his dark desires.

The book is not smarmy or overly sensational, as many True Crime books can be.  Instead, it is a gripping accounting of these parallel events.  Personally, I much preferred the parts that recounted the stressful and miraculous rush to prepare the Fair in time for its opening.  Lead designers, Charles Burnham and Frederick Law Olmstead are given plenty of space in the book, and are portrayed as dedicated professionals who were able to accomplish the impossible.

The Fair brought about many different forms of innovation in construction, landscape, electricity, urban design, and common amusement (the Ferris Wheel and 'belly dancing' both had their debuts here).  It was a period of intense forward-thinking, all pulled off in a time of economic downturn (perhaps providing us a lesson or two on how we should be weathering recent storms).  Larson's research is meticulous, and these parts of the book are amazing to read.

The Holmes sections (which, towards the end have a Toronto connection that surprised me) are equally riveting, as Larson deconstructs his methods, but ultimately leaves his motivations a mystery. Holmes constructed a labyrinthine and sinister building, which he converted to a hotel for guests to the Fair, many of whom were never seen again.  That he escaped detection and even suspicion for so long is a testament to his gifts of persuasion and charisma.

Larson's writing is very detailed and clear, although at times his style would irritate me.  For example, in telling the story of George Ferris and his desire to build his eponymous wheel, Larson consistently omitted his name, referring to him as the engineer from Pittsburgh, as to preserve the telling detail that would reveal what he was talking about.  At times like this, I kept hearing Paul Harvey telling me that I "know the rest of the story."

These moments of gimmickry, however, were rare, and the book stands as an amazing record of a time that I know nothing about, and that the world has largely forgotten.  I highly recommend this book.

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