Book Review: The Devil in the White City
October 29, 2015 at 12:00 pm
Allow me to set the scene for you: We’re in Chicago in 1893 during the World’s Fair. Chicago has pulled out all the stops for this event, knowing that it would be a special one in the city’s history. Daniel Burnham, the lead architect in the World’s Fair project, has spent the last three years crafting a spectacle that includes exhibitions of the world’s finest innovations, entire villages imported from exotic countries, and thousands of visitors every day. But one visitor is making the Chicago World’s Fair his own personal playground of horror: America’s most prolific serial killer, H. H. Holmes. Holmes wore the “mask” of the charming doctor in his everyday life, but when the mask came off, his victims witnessed true evil.
Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City is nonfiction that reads like the kind of fiction you just can’t put down. Originally published in 2003, this title has experienced a resurgence in sales due to Leonardo DiCaprio’s ties to its upcoming movie adaptation. It won multiple awards in the horror genre and is a New York Times bestseller, and for good reason: this book is amazing.
Larson switches back and forth from Burnham’s story to Holmes’ story. Burnham’s story is much more technical in that it takes an in-depth look at his work on the Chicago World’s Fair (as well as his prior architectural work around Chicago), but these chapters are far from dry. Larson’s descriptions of Burnham’s work will especially appeal to history buffs. Larson shapes a fascinating character in Burnham — an accomplished, remarkable man who didn’t believe in the impossible.
Holmes’ chapters will appeal to lovers of the horror genre. Larson obviously conducted a lot of research before writing The Devil in the White City, but these chapters, like Burnham’s, do not read like a historiography. When we first meet Holmes, we are introduced to him through a witness’ description of his ears: “It is a marvelously small ear, and at the top it is shaped and carved after the fashion in which old sculptors indicated devilry and vice in their statues of satyrs.” Whoa. And the language doesn’t stop there. Larson takes some liberties in his research to create dialogue and make inferences that an academic, historical account couldn’t. This makes for an engaging read.
I fully recommend you hop on this train before the movie release (you know, so you can be That Guy in your social circle). Anyone who loves reading will enjoy this book, especially readers who enjoy history and/or horror. Larson’s phenomenal prose makes this nonfiction account of the Chicago World’s Fair and the murderous H. H. Holmes so interesting, you won’t want to put it down.
5 out of 5 crones