Oh, hell, I’m on a roll

Figured I get this book review reprinted as well.  Another one I originally wrote for Homomojo.

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The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

Do you like books about True Crime? Looking for a story about America that is actually NEW to you? Do you like Architecture? Invention? Stories about corporate greed? If the answer to any of these is yes, then this is the book for you. Heck, I don’t particularly enjoy tales about true crime (you know, Ann Rule and the like), but this book is truly one of the best I that have ever read.

The Devil in the White City, Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America, by Erik Larson, is the story of two men: Daniel Burnham, the architect responsible for the 1893 world’s fair in Chicago, and a man named Henry H Holmes (among a few other assumed names), who took upon himself the titles of Doctor, Pharmacist, and Entrepeneur, among other professions, and was America’s first known serial killer–although this was not found out until after the World’s Fair was over.

The book is constructed so that alternating chapters follow these two men throughout the construction of the World’s fair, and the two stories, while not directly connected other than in place and time, are strikingly juxtaposed to highlight each other. While Burnham was concerned with erecting a plaster city of white by what was considered an impossible timetable, Holmes saw the hurried and harried atmosphere as a city ripe for the picking. Fueled by greed and lust, Holmes takes advantage of everyone he meets (and some of them are undeniably naive), gets close to them, then absorbs their lives and makes them disappear. As you will read in the book, Holmes could convince just about anyone about just about anything. I found myself shaking my head at what he was able to accomplish simply due to the complicity or apathy of those around him.

While some may consider the amount of detail about the architecture to be a bit much, I tend to think just the opposite. The personal relationships Burnham had with the other architects–his erstwhile competitors who had to work for him if they wanted to participate in the World’s fair–as well as the reasons behind why certain aspects of the fair were constructed as they were, lends credence to Holmes’s tale, and sets the backdrop for this engrossing story.

Not only is the story of these two men completely engrossing, it is chock full of historical facts and trivia that I would probably never have learned about had I NOT read this book. For example:

*the first widespread practical application of electric lighting
*the construction of the 1st ferris wheel
*Where Walt Disney got his inspiration for Disneyland
*How Chicago beat out the rest of the US cities for the World’s Fair.
*How Chicago, due to the horrid pollution and lack of sewers at the time, was known as the Black City. Which is why the fair was made completely White: to show the world that America’s World’s Fair would be pristine despite it’s location.
*The beginning of each chapter also has a vintage black & white photo of one spectacle or another from the fair.

I’ll be honest: this book isn’t for those who only like to read pulp fiction or fluff novels. It’s full of facts, names you’ll recognize but not know exactly how you know them, and anecdotal tales that can be either quite frightening or amusing. However, if you’ve got the time and the ambition to tackle a truly great work of modern literature that’s factually accurate and quite spellbinding, The Devil in the White City is well worth the read. Believe me, there aren’t many books that I’ll give a 10.

3 thoughts on “Oh, hell, I’m on a roll

  1. I wasn’t aware of that! Thanks for the hat tip. Now I have to go out and pick it up. I assume that you’re talking about Thunderstruck, which I just found on Amazon. I just picked up Good Omens by Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett last night, & Cell by Stephen King, so it’ll probably be a month before I get to it. I WILL get to it, though, simply because I was so stunningly enamored by Devil in the White City. I think I gush over that book too much, but it’s just great–especially for a true historical tale.

  2. You’re very welcome. If you’re Larson shopping, I would recommend Isaac’s Storm as well, which is very much along the same lines.

    Cell, I’m sorry. I lost interest (and stomach) after the first page when the zombie started eating the dog. Had they stuck to humans, that’s one thing, but I am absolutely and utterly squeamish at the thought of hurting man’s best friend.

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