My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I’ve never been to Chicago.
I’ve heard so much about it: its museums, its history, and especially the food. I’ve always wanted to go.
After reading Erik Larson’s book about the 1893 World’s Fair, my interest in Chicago’s history is slowly gaining on my obsession with the food scene there.
Larson’s book explores the events surrounding 1893’s World’s Columbian Exposition. The author fastidiously chronicles architect Daniel Burnham’s arduous task of creating the White City: a confluence of the day’s finest architecture, art, culture, and innovations — the best America (and the world) had to offer all in one convenient location.
He also guides the reader down a twisted path branching off from the main road: how serial killer H.H. Holmes (the eponymous “Devil” of the book) capitalized on the World’s Fair by luring victims to his infamous “Murder Castle” with low rates and his charismatic charm.
The book is nothing if not fascinating — Larson’s subject matter serves him well here. The obstacles Burnham and his colleagues had to surmount in order to make this Fair happen were staggering. The inventions that debuted at the Fair are fascinating (e.g. the Ferris Wheel. And did you know that the US runs on alternating current because Westinghouse submitted a lower bid to power the Fair based on AC? So interesting).
And the lurid details of Holmes’ escapades are gripping as well. I have a morbid fascination with serial killers (what drives someone to repeatedly commit the most heinous act possible?), and Larson’s account of Holmes’ “work” did not disappoint.
However, the book did suffer from the constant change of pace as Larson switched from story to story. Add in a tertiary subplot (the assassination of Mayor Carter Harrison) and you’ve got a trifecta of interesting storylines that have little in common aside from their setting.
The Devil in the White City was an ambitious project for any author to tackle. Larson did the best with his source material, but I can’t help but to wish that he’d decided to write three books instead of one.