Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

Reviewed by Jeanne

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson is in part the story of the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, the "White City" of the title. Chicago was stretching its muscles, vying for a place not just on the national stage against New York, but for a piece of the international spotlight.  Paris had just hosted a very successful Fair, one in which an enormous tower built by Gustav Eiffel had captured the world’s imagination.  Now the United States wanted to do the same thing.  Several cities were competing for the chance to take center stage and prove that America was as innovative, as cosmopolitan, and as prosperous as any country in Europe. New York was the obvious choice, as it already had a reputation as an international city but other places begged to differ.

Chicago was one.  Chicago was a robust city, famed for its slaughterhouses and its industry, and it was ready to prove that it could be a sophisticated metropolis on a par with the East Coast cities.  When Chicago was awarded the Fair, architect Daniel Burnham was named the director.  It was his job to bring a unified vision to the Fair, properly the World’s Fair:  Columbian Exposition.  Burnham brought in Frederick Law Olmstead, the elderly but influential landscape architect, along with a number of other architects, inventors, engineers, and vendors in order to realize their goal.

While this may not sound like the most exciting of endeavors, Larson’s telling makes it so.  He has a knack for recreating a time and place.  Just as he did with Isaac’s Storm, Larson keeps readers on the edge of their seats wondering how something is going to unfold, even if we already know how it ends. One scene in particular resonated with me, when some brave souls step aboard an untried vehicle about to ascend hundreds of feet off the ground.  He captured the uncertainty, the thrill and the faith it took to try this for the first time EVER. Then there was the sheer number of new products and innovations that were introduced at the Fair, things that still influence us today, from foods, amusements, and the radical idea of putting electric lights on some of the buildings. The designs of the buildings and landscaping set the standard for municipal construction for years to come, for better or (in some views) for worse.

Oh, and did I mention there was a serial killer on the loose?

In fact, some have described this book as a sort of dual biography, comparing and contrasting Daniel Burnham, man with a glorious vision of what a city should be, with one Herman Webster Mudgett aka H.H. Holmes who came to Chicago with a different but no less ambitious agenda.  Holmes was just as thorough, just as creative, and with his own vision of perfection: his just involved murdering people for pleasure and for profit. One of the surprises for me was just how modern some of his ideas were-- very effective and efficient.

Unlike many true crime books, Larson doesn’t wallow in the gory details, though he doesn't shy away from them, either.  He presents the facts as well as he could learn them; he says in his notes that the times he had to speculate he did so based on information from the best available sources.  His restraint makes the retelling no less powerful or chilling.  

Larson has a gift for evoking a time and place through wonderful details, and his research is thorough.  He can make seemingly dull subjects both vibrant and relevant.  This is non-fiction that reads almost like fiction. In short, I highly recommend Devil in the White City.

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