Erik Larson's THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY
A book review by Dennis D. McDonald
Another time and place: the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Midwestern entrepreneurs are intent on besting the recently completed Paris World Fair. Their goal: show that the U.S. takes second place to no one. Just as important: Chicago pride dictates that New York will be bested as well, despite Chicago’s 19th Century reputation as a rough, artless metropolis smelling of the Stockyards.
Erik Larson’s history reads like a novel, aided by his alternating the story of the architecting of the Fair with the machinations of H.H. Holmes, “America’s First Serial Killer.”
The Fair and Holmes are intertwined, one an example of big urban planning, big architecture, and just plain Thinking Big, the other an example ofa hideous evil that lurks near the Fair and murders dozens of young women in the confines of the creepy three-story block-long building he creates as a mechanism for entrapping, killing, dismembering, and ultimately, dissecting his prey.
The entire book is fascinating. It crosses paths with other themes of American history, including electrification, architectural competitions, urban planning, mechanical engineering, public relations, the Ferris Wheel — even Walt Disney is mentioned. There is much here to inspire.
But the Holmes part of the saga is a reminder of the dark side of human nature. Do we need to be reminded of that? Probably not, but it makes for an exciting read. It is another reminder of how times change but people don’t, even as technology advances.
Review copyright (c) 2005 by Dennis D. McDonald