Book Look - Devil in the White City, Erik Larson

The text on the back cover of Devil in the White City makes two promises: 1) to educate the reader about the legendary 1893 Chicago World's Fair, with particular emphasis on the role played by the fair's brilliant architect, Daniel Burnham, and 2) to shed new light on the murderous rampage of one of the country's most infamous serial killers, who at one point in his career availed himself of the fair to lure attractive female victims to their doom.

In fact, the book delivers both more and less. Erik Larson's meticulous historical scholarship and his scrupulous resolve to report only substantiated fact is both this work's strength and its downfall.

For instance, if you're looking for drama and titillating detail, you may find yourself disappointed. This is non-fiction, Larson reminds you at every turn, which means he can only report what has been entered into the historical record. And since our elusive murder, Dr. Holmes, was not a particularly trustworthy or forthcoming villain, the tale necessarily omits those mainstays of sensational true crime reporting - witness accounts, motive, and intent - that play a key role in generating empathy, suspense, and horror. By the end of the book you'll know all about the victims, the timelines, the crime scenes (including Holmes' infamous "house of horrors") and the investigation that led to his eventual arrest, but you'll gain little new insight into either the devils that drove the fiendish Dr. Holmes to commit his crimes, or the faults/flaws that predisposed his victims to fall prey to his machinations.

If, however, you're looking for an author who knows how to use research to deftly evoke a period and mood, you'll eat up this wonderfully detailed account of the U.S. at a unique and riveting moment in history. Through the eyes of Daniel Burham, the Chicago Fair's architect, Larson explores not just the physical construction of one of the most magnificent Worlds' Fairs in history, but also the social and cultural construct of a major U.S. city at the turn of the century. He skillfully paints the U.S. in general (and Chicago in particular) as a land of astonishing superlatives and extremes, in which towering skyscrapers coexisted alongside stinking slaughterhouses; in which men of enormous wealth coexisted with impoverished, exploited laborers; in which men possessed the vision to raise in a wonder from dust, but lacked the ability to alleviate the pain of a crippling toothache; in which people gaped at wonders such as Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, cannibals, belly dancers, and the world's first ferris wheel, while simultaneously taking for granted the wonders - elevators, skyscrapers, social progressiveness - popping up all around them every day; and in which men required only cleverness and vision to achieve great deeds and fame ... or, alternatively, to achieve appalling deeds and infamy.

I, for one, thoroughly enjoyed the tale. Though not without some flaws (too many menus, too much time devoted to Harrison's assassination, *way* too much Olmstead!), I felt Devil in the White City delivered on the promises of its back cover, and then some.

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