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The Devil in the White City January 11, 2007

Posted by Brian L. Belen in Books, Reviews.
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Erik Larson has a knack for storytelling and a flair for the dramatic that shines throughout The Devil in the White City.

The book relates two tales of Chicago at the turn of the 19th century, the larger of which is the story of the 1893 World’s Fair. Emblematic of the gilded age, it is the story of the race to make the Fair a reality, of the struggle to make it succeed, and of the vision of America’s greatest architects – particularly the prolific Daniel Burnham – that resulted in the magnificent structures for which the Fair will never be forgotten. At the same time, Larson also tells the much darker tale of one Herman Webster Mudgett, alias H. H. Holmes, a psychopath that goes on a killing spree at the height of the Fair. His crimes largely unnoticed, he is ultimately brought to justice some time after the curtains had been drawn on “the fair that changed America”.

In alternating between both stories, Larson makes The Devil in the White City a study in contrasts. The optimism, effort and energy of the principals that made the Fair happen are juxtaposed against the macabre, methodical and sometimes inexplicable crimes that Holmes commits. What makes this juxtaposition work is that Larson does not force the issue: both stories are told independent of each other, so much so that if both tales were separated and compiled individually, each would perhaps make its own readable book. At the same time, since the contrast is a natural one to make, and because Larson leaves it to the reader to infer what he or she may from both stories, the result is a thoroughly enjoyable read.

An enjoyable read based on fact, no less. Indeed, the book sometimes feels as if it were fiction masquerading as fact, when the truth is exactly the opposite. Larson is clearly in his element as he makes late 19th century Chicago come alive before readers’ eyes and delicately re-creates some of Holmes’s heinous acts. It is apparent that he is able to do both so well because of the amount of research that had been poured into the manuscript. This becomes all too clear at the book’s end, with its very accessible (but not at all insubstantial) notes. The book may not be a history text, but it might as well be; it is certainly not fiction, but it is just as enchanting.

Truly, The Devil in the White City demonstrates the entrancing appeal that history can have in the hands of those with an unwavering commitment to the facts – and the talent to spin an interesting yarn.

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