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Book Review: Devil in the White City (2003)

Devil in the White City is a nonfiction work that juxtaposes the massive undertaking of building the 1893 Chicago World's Fair with the quiet murders of "Dr. H.H. Holmes," supposedly the nation's first urban serial killer. Author Erik Larson apparently wanted to contrast Daniel Burnham, the architect behind the fair, with Holmes, real name Herman Mudgett, an opportunistic killer. But the fair has so many moving parts and personalities that it sometimes overwhelms the narrative pillar that Burnham is supposed to be. However, a little time and distance from the novel reveals that the two men represented opposing themes: honor and lawlessness, dignity and hedonism, "good" society and the underground, and so on.
The novel begins with Burnham traveling by sea, hobbled by a painful foot and reminiscing. Then Larson plunges readers right into the thick of it: the humiliation suffered by Americans by the Eiffel Tower unveiled during the 1889 World's Fair in Paris; the clamoring in Chicago to be the next host city; and the tensions with New York. Larson vividly paints a period still marked by stratified social standings, governed by profit and pride, and with no shortage of talented men and women when the government awards Chicago the contract to build the fair. Throughout the book, Burnham is plagued by sicknesses, deaths, fractious relationships, and Chicago's engineering problems, but he sees the fair as his chance to shine, and drives the fair toward completion and eventual success. That latter part was guaranteed by the most profitable innovation created for and unveiled at the fair: the Ferris Wheel. Larson creates suspense in the unveiling of this contraption, always setting up the question--What could top the Eiffel Tower?--and readers unfamiliar with this particular time in history will be flummoxed, I say, flummoxed!

At the same time, a small man arrives in Chicago and proceeds to con his way into ownership of a block-long lot, where he builds a "hotel," ostensibly for the fair. As the World's Fair unfolds noisily in Jackson Park, people stream into the city, enchanted by all the possibilities it offers. Many young women disappear. Larson describes Holmes' activities in less detail than Burnham's, probably because there are fewer reliable primary sources for Holmes' crimes. Still, readers get the picture: the charming man, well-spoken and claiming to be a physician, seduces many women, marries a few of them, and then they disappear. His most notorious crime, investigated while he was in jail for fraud, involved kidnapping three children. Spoiler alert: it does not end well for the kids.

Devil in the White City is a great read, although the florid prose becomes a little too much at times. It's a fascinating look into events that led to the concept of American Exceptionalism. As Larson shows, the US is exceptional, all right -- but not everything is roses and neoclassical architecture. The Chicago police were particularly inept when it came to Holmes. 

This book has a lot going on: architecture, engineering, the tragedies of living in non-modern medicine times, even the Titanic! Recommended! 

Oh, and Happy Friday!

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