Thursday, October 28, 2010

Review: The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson

My brother and his wife gave me this book for my birthday last month, and with it came along some very high praise. As you can tell from my reading log, I don’t read a lot of narrative nonfiction, but there’s no doubt that Erik Larson is a born storyteller and in its best moments this book is truly compelling.

The Devil in the White City is set during the 1893 World Fair in Chicago, IL and tells two separate stories – that of famed architect Daniel Hudson Burnham, who played an instrumental role in designing and implementing many of the structures that turned the 1893 fair world fair into a global event, and notorious serial killer H.H. Holmes, who was murdering a whole host of young women during the same period. The book goes into painstaking detail to reveal these two interrelated stories and presents a breathtaking portrait of an era in American history that is long gone but still infinitely fascinating.

There is no way to get around the thorough research that went into creating this book. It’s almost as if every sentence required some deep and laborious act of investigation in order to be crafted into existence. Despite this, Larson’s book is not a laborious read. It clips along with the well-structured pacing of a novel, weaving back and forth between its two stories and building to a shattering climax. With great skill, Larson turns the fair itself (and its near-endless problems getting off the ground) into a character that the reader roots for. It is a book that presents one man’s drive to make his dream of the world fair into a reality, and another man’s drive to exploit, betray and ultimately murder the women he brings into his life with a psychopathic tenacity.

The Devil in the White City is also a loving tribute to the city of Chicago. The `93 world fair was the city’s way of putting itself on the map, to show the world that there was more to America’s urban life than just New York City. Larson brings as much passion to capturing the spirit of that city as he does telling the compelling stories of Burnham and Holmes. Highly recommended.

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