The Devil in the White City has to be one of the most reviewed non-fiction books in the book blogosphere. I can see why – it reads like a novel. So much so that I hear Leonardo DiCaprio bought the rights and is planning to play H.H. Holmes himself.
The book is divided into two alternated (and practically independent) stories: the history of the Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 and that of H. H. Holmes, America’s first documented serial-killer. The slim connection between the two is that Holmes lived in Chicago during the Fair and used the influx of strangers to get away with many murderers.
The first chapters mostly deal with the pre-Exposition events, when architects were hired, committees formed and blueprints drawn. The mission of this impressive group of men was to make the event the greater, larger, more magnificent thing ever seen, especially greater, larger, more magnificent than the recent Paris Expo. I’m sure Freud had a thing of two to say about this desire to “out-Eiffel Eiffel“.
Almost 120 years later, you can tell Larson also fell for the Fair’s spell, but I must confess I often thought “Columbian who?”. Excuse me my ignorance, but I had never heard of the Chicago Exposition before. I did know about the St. Louis one, but then again, there was Judy Garland singing “Meet me in St. Louis“ – not that makes an event last!.
(Talking about marketing, although I liked the book, I felt a bit cheated by the way it was promoted. I was not “murder, magic and madness at the Fair that changed America“. I was more “group of men try to become immortal by organizing a humongous Fair, while in another part of Chicago a serial-killer is on the loose, and in yet another part of the city – because it’s also an interesting story so why not put it in? – a madman kills the mayor”. From the way it was promoted, and from Larson’s introduction, I thought Holmes actually killed (or at least met his victims) at the Fair).
Larson chose his topics well and would be hard pressed to make them sound boring. He tells delicious anecdotes about Helen Keller, Buffalo Bill, Tesla and Susan B. Anthony, but the best part were the micro-stories. They made the Fair come alive: the couples who wanted to marry in the Ferris Wheel, the firemen wounded and killed, the Women Committee’s political battles. My favorite was the one about a Ferris Wheel passenger who had panic attack and another passenger’s drastic measurements to control him:
A woman disrobing in public, a man with a skirt over his head – the marvels of the fair seemed endless.
I looked at many photos of the Fair while reading the book and have to agree with the critics that said that by choosing a neo-classic style, the architects might have lost the opportunity to create something truly ground-breaking and memorable. Because let’s face it, the Ferris Wheel is great, but did it really revolutionized world architecture the way the Eiffel Tower did?
But no matter how exciting a World Fair is, it’s almost impossible to compete with a well-told story about a serial-killer. I wouldn’t be surprised if this part was included after Larson’s editor said something like, “Well Erik, the Fair is a fine idea, great potential, but why not er… spice it up a bit? How about including a serial killer? I’m sure there were some around.”
There were moments during the audiobook (read by Scott Brick), where I got goose-bumps, especially with the graphic descriptions of Holmes’ evil deeds. It made it extra hard to go back to the Fair part of the story.
I must have spent hours on Wikipedia navigating between articles about Daniel Burnham, the Flatiron Building, Graceland Cemetery, the zipper, Cracker Jacks and the Titanic. I always have great respect for books that pique my curiosity (that’s why I’m not a Da Vinci Code nay-sayer) and this was a perfect example.