04 May 2010

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

The Devil in the White City Chicago in 1893 was a city of noise and movement and people. Thanks to energetic campaigning, it had won the chance to outdo Paris, to produce a World’s Fair bigger and better than anything seen before (with, of course, an attraction to outshine Eiffel’s tower). Under the direction of architect Daniel Burnham, a vast complex of buildings and landscaping - the White City - sprang up against seemingly impossible obstacles of time and budget.

Chicago was also a place where it was very easy to vanish. People disappeared all the time, and the police force didn’t have the resources to hunt every one. The influx of visitors lured by the Fair - including many unaccompanied young women - provided an opportunity that Dr H. H. Holmes had no intention of missing.

It seems strange to imagine a time when Americans believed crazed serial killers were something you only had to worry about on the other side of the Atlantic. These days, despite the best (or worst) efforts of people elsewhere in the world, “serial killer” automatically makes one think of the States. Then, H. H. Holmes was the first proof that America was capable of producing its own Ripper - not that Holmes appears to have done anything so confrontational as slicing up his victims. At least not while they were alive....

In fact it’s not known for certain quite what Holmes did, or how many people he did it to. Thanks to his own varying accounts, limited investigative techniques, and a convenient fire, a certain amount of imagination had, of necessity, to be applied to reconstructing his crimes. Judging by the footnotes the scenarios depicted are entirely plausible. Holmes’s utter disregard for his victims is chilling, and so is the way in which he managed to charm so many people so thoroughly. Even those few who sensed something wrong about him did nothing; and I’m curious now as to what traits enable a person to see through the facade of a sociopath.

Alternating with the chapters devoted to Holmes (usually at the most suspenseful moment possible) are those detailing the battle to get the Fair underway on schedule, and without giving New York anything to laugh at. With careers and civic pride on the line it’s gripping stuff, and the list of soon-to-be famous people the White City inspired is impressive. I’m not at all a fan of noisy shows and large crowds, so reading about something like this is by far the best way to experience it! There’s a wealth of detail and anecdotes to bring the Fair - and the grimy, malodorous city - to life.

And then there’s loopy Patrick Prendergast and his unhealthy obsession with the mayor....

Rating: B+

1 comment:

  1. Ha, it is far better reading about messy noisy crowds than experiencing them. I'm so with you! :P


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Header image shows detail of A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1776