Book Review: “The Devil in the White City” by Erik Larson

photo-66While some reviewers have mentioned that they do not like the dual storyline of this book, I have become quite fond of this structure. It is a difficult task to present two intriguing stories that run parallel in time and place while trying to be as true to fact as possible. Erik Larson presents a variable red carpet of rich and famous characters in passing who are forever touched by the white city of Chicago.

The Devil in the White City is based on a true story of the enormous undertaking of D. H. Burnham, the lead architect who is commissioned to plan the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago. In the midst of this grand event, readers are introduced to the darker city surrounding the beauty of the white architecture.

The parallel story that is the dark to the white city is that of H. H. Holmes, a psychopath and con man using the draw of the exposition to find victims to excite his fascination with death. As Burnham creates architecture of grand design to lift the individual spirit of the viewer, Holmes creates architecture built to break and torture the spirit of his victims. The plethora of individuals and facts that wallpaper the telling of this story only add to the foothold in time and place for the reader.

Larson builds this story fact upon fact like bricks placed carefully in the road of Jackson Park. Readers of this work of creative non-fiction should be patient in the unfolding of the parallel stories in order to appreciate the later harder separations between the dark and the white city and the scars left on Chicago. An impatient reader with no appreciation for detail will not enjoy this book that examples many inventions, some used for good, some used for evil. Without aligning this age of discovery with invention, the creations built by Holmes to effectively dispose of his victims would not have been plausible to the reader.

Erik Larson proves his abilities as a patient storyteller who describes the visceral pleasure of architecture and cold calculated homicide with equal flair. The devil of this book is not necessarily the psychopath killer Holmes. The devil may well be the constant desire of man to create, to conquer, to prove himself more than  mere mortal.

 

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