The Devil in the White City: A Saga of Magic and Murder at the Fair That Changed America | Erik Larson
The Devil in the White City is a novel from 2004 from Erik Larson that details the unbelievable events that took place during the construction and duration of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition (Chicago World's Fair). As Chicago and the fair's architects banded together to create the magical "White City", one of the most prolific serial killers the world had ever seen was covertly claiming victims in his "Murder Castle". Holmes used his proximity to the fair to lure his victims into his hotel, and is said to have murdered from 20-200 victims. Most of whom were women.
There's a couple of things that would be worthwhile to know going into this book. First, this book is as much about Daniel Burnham and the creation of World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago as it is about H. H. Holmes. There's a lot of detail surrounding the politics and construction of the fair, but I found that it helped paint a picture of life during the end of the 19th century. It also made me very thankful for modern medicine.
The second item that is worth knowing is that this story is told in a very interesting way. Larson did all of the research on his own, and all of the dialogue are direct quotes from letters and notes from that time period. (He also provides citations in the epilogue, which pleased the academic in me).
So many fun facts were woven into the story (lobbyists vying to have Chicago the host site of this event earned the city the nickname, "The Windy City"; the fair was the first time Shredded Wheat and Cracker Jack had been introduced to the world) and the reader gets to meet famous figures: Elias Disney, Susan B. Anthony, Buffalo Bill Cody, Frank Lloyd Wright, etc. I found myself turning to Google quite often to be sure that the events presented actually happened.
I would have liked to have more pictures of the fair included, but I found that it helped me frame the story to look these things up and use it to create my own visuals. I also would have liked to hear more about the H. H. Holmes and the alleged crimes he committed, but since Larson only included what is presented by multiple sources as fact, I can see why so little is known about Holmes and his many aliases.
I do think this book appealed to me so much because of its connection to Chicago and its architecture. I can take a lot of horror in my novels, and I found the way Larson presented the murders to overall be somewhat mild. This is the book we're reading for the next book club meeting, and I'll be very interested to hear what everyone else thought! Although it's from 2004, I choose it because I'm hoping it will be brought back into popular culture again, as Leonardo DiCaprio is set to play Holmes in the film adaptation (hopefully out in 2017!)
"It was time, he said, to acknowledge the truth: "Chicago has disappointed her enemies and astonished the world".
4 out of 5