Book Review – The Devil in the White City

Devil in the White CityThe Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson (Amazon, Apple), is an historical account of two major events in late 19th century America. The first is the construction and execution of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, and the second is of a serial killer, named Dr. H. H. Holmes, living in Chicago, who was able to use the transient nature of people visiting the World’s Fair to commit multiple murders.

This book is a bit older (published in 2004), but I decided to pick it up based upon several recommendations from friends, and that it looks like it is going to be made into a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the book. While I am a fan of incredible construction projects and the detail that went into them (such as the building of the transcontinental railroad, or the federal highway system), my interest has never been piqued by any World’s Fair. And I’m certainly not much into reading about mysteries or serial killers. But I was intrigued that these events happened at the same time in the same place, and the idea of both stories being told concurrently, interwoven into each other, gave me the feeling that this would be told more like a novel than a dry history.

To that effect, it worked. The author set the stage well for both stories, and initially would jump, almost a chapter at a time, between the two. This definitely gave me something to look forward to if one particular chapter seemed a little dull.

And there was a lot to learn. Mr. Larson did a great job describing the angst that the architects of the World’s Fair had, as they desperately wanted to beat what Paris did with the Eiffel Tower. They wanted to “out Eiffel Eiffel”. I had no idea what they actually did, and for a time thought they must have done nothing. The way Larson revealed the secret was done very well.

But in general, not being as fan of architecture, the story of the design of the World’s Fair just began to tire me. I simply didn’t care when architects were fighting amongst themselves about the color palette, or whether building X should be taller or shorter than building Y, and what the grounds needed to look like. It’s not that these topics were described poorly – Larson does this story great justice. But overall, it just wasn’t my thing.

It also felt like Larson lost interest in the interweaving of the stories after a while, because the serial killer narrative disappeared for long stretches, and when it appeared, was only for one short chapter before delving right back into a fight about the gravel pathways of the fair. Then, when the fair ended, the book became a really interesting detective story.

Finally, and somewhat strangely to me, Larson also threw in a third story, about a mentally deranged man named Prendergast who thought he was going to get a government job based upon work he did in an election, and how that eventually led to an assassination.

These three stories never had a point of intersect. Prendergast never interacted with Holmes, and neither one of them interacted with any of the architects. And the serial killer story really started before the World’s Fair, and went on for two years after the fair, which in some ways made the whole dovetailing with the World’s Fair a mere coincidence.

My gut tells me that the movie that is made from this book is going to throw the story on its head. The Prendergast story line will probably be dropped, and the construction and execution of the fair itself will be merely a backdrop for the serial killer story, because otherwise I don’t see how there is a movie there.

However, I don’t want to come down on this as being a bad book. I learned quite a bit reading it – all the firsts that occurred (electricity, motion pictures, the Ferris Wheel, and many others), and just how close in time this American serial killer was to the infamous Jack the Ripper, which mentally I always assumed to be from a much earlier time. But Holmes, the American serial killer, was intimately aware of Jack the Ripper, and perhaps was even inspired by him. Chilling.

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