The Devil in the White City

The Devil in the White CityThe Devil in the White City

by Erik Larson

In 1893, the World’s Columbian Exposition was held in Chicago, an accomplishment that secured America’s place in the world.  The Devil in the White City tells the story of the mastermind behind the fair, Daniel Burnham, and the many other architects that worked together to design it.  Struggling with politics, unions, and a ridiculous time constraint among other things, they strove to create a fair that would exceed the expectations of all watching and also surpass the greatness of the 1889 world’s fair in Paris.  Yet lurking near the fair was a serial killer, a young man with the face of an angel and the manner of a saint, who used the fair to lure many young women to their deaths.

Reading this book really gave me an appreciation for how much effort goes into planning, designing, and constructing a building complex.  Larson included architectural details in the book that I would normally find tedious, yet he laid them out elegantly and placed them in the broader context of the fair itself, making them intriguing to read about.  The number of different elements that come into play when designing a fair is almost overwhelming to think about and demands great respect for those who planned the fair.

Larson provides a great level detail overall, from his descriptions of landscapes to the mannerisms of the characters.  The author often quotes from letters written by the characters, thus revealing their thoughts and state of mind.  This serves to breathe life into characters that would otherwise be simple historical figures remembered only by their accomplishments.  By making it easier for his audience to relate to the characters, Larson has made this story that much more enjoyable.

Although the final outcome of the fair is known as history, Larson tells the story in a way that had me guessing as to the what would happen next in the sequence of events and wincing in expectation of the next disaster.  I thought Larson also recreated the character of H. H. Holmes, the young serial killer, particularly well.  Reading about Holmes was like reading about a cold-blooded murderer of a novel, with his charming outward appearance and sadistic joy in killing.

All in all, The Devil in the White City is a great read, both entertaining and educational.  I would recommend this book for older readers or very mature younger readers, given its subject matter.  Aside from a few mild four-letter words, there are several short but vivid descriptions of the murder victims’ bodies, as well as a few descriptions of the murders themselves, although the murder methods described are not violent or bloody.  Reading this book will not only expand your knowledge of a significant event in American history but also give you a better understanding and appreciation for architecture and the challenges it presents.

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