Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson (2003)

People had been telling me that I would love The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson (2003) for years, but a copy never came into my grasp until the lovely Dr. M bought me my very own copy for my birthday. Thanks, dude!

The Devil in the White City tells the parallel stories of Daniel Burnham, a prominent Chicago architect, and his quest to create a successful World's Fair in Chicago in 1893 (one that would even top the Paris World's Fair that unveiled the Eiffel Tower a few years before), and Herman Webster Mudgett (aka Dr. H. H. Holmes), a charming and successful psychopathic serial killer who preyed, among others, on the single women who came to enjoy Burnham's fair.

While these two men and their dedication to their very different passions is fascinating, the best part for me are the two non-human characters that lean over everything, the city of Chicago and the fair itself. The fair introduced widespread use of electric light, the Midway, the Ferris wheel, a resurgence in classical architecture, the "there's a place in France where the naked ladies dance" tune, and tons more. And Chicago: the most American of all American cities, trying to prove it's own worth against the diamond of New York City by hosting a gigantic fair that seems to be doomed to failure almost from the start.

Larson's novelistic writing style makes this the perfect history book for people who don't like history, but his extensive and diligent research, documented in pages and pages of footnotes, will make archivists and historians happy as well. Last year, my good friend Corie lent me Larson's most recent book, In the Garden of the Beasts, and I liked that one quite a bit, but I liked this one even more. Where Larson's narrative lost steam a bit towards the end of the more recent book, here the parallel stories keep the pace moving steadily all the way through.

People, you were right: I did love this book!

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