Author Erik Larson imbues the incredible events surrounding the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair with such drama that readers may find themselves checking the book’s categorization to be sure that ‘The Devil in the White City’ is not, in fact, a highly imaginative novel. Larson tells the stories of two men: Daniel H. Burnham, the architect responsible for the fair’s construction, and H.H. Holmes, a serial killer masquerading as a charming doctor.
Burnham’s challenge was immense. In a short period of time, he was forced to overcome the death of his partner and numerous other obstacles to construct the famous “White City” around which the fair was built. His efforts to complete the project, and the fair’s incredible success, are skillfully related along with entertaining appearances by such notables as Buffalo Bill Cody, Susan B. Anthony, and Thomas Edison.
The activities of the sinister Dr. Holmes, who is believed to be responsible for scores of murders around the time of the fair, are equally remarkable. He devised and erected the World’s Fair Hotel, complete with crematorium and gas chamber, near the fairgrounds and used the event as well as his own charismatic personality to lure victims.
Let me be honest and tell you now that I am not one for non-fiction. However, this particular novel was being talked of so much for ages upon ages, that I had to read it to find out what the hoopla was about.
So, I bought a copy, ages ago (literally), placed it in my pile of ‘To Read’ books, and promptly forgot about it … that is until about a month ago when I came across the novel as I was re-organizing my ‘To Read’ pile. Holding the novel in my hands brought back, vividly, all the exultations that I had heard of it that instead of leaving it at book number ten to read, I graduated it to book number one and promptly began reading.
Now, it has taken me over a month to read this book, and this has nothing to do with Larson’s writing or the story of Burnham (the architect and driving force behind Chicago’s World’s Fair) and Dr. H.H. Holmes (the serial killer that used the World’s Fair to kill, mostly young women). It’s because I am not that interested in non-fiction.
However, the story did capture me, so much so that I did read from cover to cover, living the frustration, annoyance, jubilation, fear, sadness, and horror of what it took to first win the right to host and build the World’s Fair in Chicago, to agreeing on designs for the buildings, to the delays in building, to the final opening, and closing of the fair. It was incredible reading about Edison’s light bulbs being used en mass for the first time, to the building of the first Ferris wheel, to the creation of the first portable Kodak camera, to meeting Mr. Disney (carpenter of the fair and father of Walt and Roy), and to reading about countless other firsts.
It is a story that is profoundly uplifting, sad, and horrific, especially towards the end when Dr. Holmes’ real character and abilities are revealed.
Overall, I very much enjoyed this particular novel by Larson, and have ordered his other novels for further historical adventures. Perhaps Larson has cured me of my anti-non-fiction tendencies? Only time will tell. In the meantime, I highly recommend this one!