review: the devil in the white city

05 January 2014

book info:
on sale: now
copy from: public library
pages: 390
review written: 5.1.14
edition read: paperback Vintage Books, Random House
originally published: 2003

Bringing Chicago circa 1893 to vivid life, Erik Larsen's spell-binding bestseller intertwines the true tale of two men--the brilliant architect behind the legendary 1893 World's Fair, striving to secure America's place in the world; and the cunning serial killer who used the fair to lure his victims to their death. Combining meticulous research with nail-biting storytelling. Erik Larsen has crafted a narrative with all the wonder of newly discovered history and the thrills of the best fiction.

My thoughts:
The Devil in the White City is written by Erik Larson--a non-fiction, historical novel spiced up with murder mystery. The title incoroporates the two halves of the book: the Devil and the White City. The Devil is infamous murderer H.H. Holmes and the White City is the Chicago Fair that America yearns for.

This was a book assigned by my AP United States History class to read over the winter break. Naturally, I forgot about it until two days ago, so I've been cram reading. But since it's a book for school and I'm going to be tested on it, I read it with great care and attention to detail.

The book is actually two stories into one. And I think this is the reason I was able to read the book so closely yet also finish in a record amount of time. Part of the story follows Burnham, a prominent architect, and other architects that come together to build a World's Fair to rival the one in Paris where Eiffel stunned the world with the Eiffel Tower. The other part follows the story of notorious serial killer H.H. Holmes. I enjoy reading architectural literature, like descriptions of buildings or the details and plans and emotions that go behind it. I enjoy the descriptions of the types of stone, the types of scaffolding, the types of windows or doors used: that's just something weird I realised when I read The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. But in The Devil in the White City, the story is not about the architecture itself, but the process of building a fair with architecture. The doings of the companies, the architectural firms, and the workers were all described. For instance, Olmstead, a landscape architect, was feeling ill and had a disagreement with other architects and committees. Matters like this that I found interesting, but not enough to keep my reading. Had I been reading this for pleasure, I would have felt discouraged and put it down about half way through. Though I think it's not so unbearable that one would suffer from reading it. The reason I kept reading was not because of the architectural story, but the H. H. Holmes story. Like the Chicago World Fair, the story of H.H. Holmes starts from the beginning.

What I enjoyed about the story of the World Fair was the arc. It all started with an idea, and then the planning and then the execution and then the enjoyment and then the demise. I felt as if I were watching a fast-forward film footage of a baby growing into an adult and slowly declining into old age into death. When one follows a person from conception to death, one is left with a feeling of completeness and a feeling of nostalgia. I feel like I've known the World Fair. I know it's origins and I know its end. That sort of arc is fulfilling in a sense. Of course, H.H. Holmes' story barely covers his birth and early childhood. We start from when he's a young, handsome, popular man. But I feel that same sense of completion as I did with the World Fair.

The book is mainly fact, with little fiction. I believe whatever fiction was involved was there simply to make the facts flow with a literature-like rhythm.  For instance "The sun emerged late in the morning, though squalls continued to sweet Jackson Park through much of the day" (290). Details like the sun emerging late seem like fiction, but I don't know if Larson did detailed research. The citations at the back of the book surely describe extreme attention to detail and staying true to fact. Actual quotes from architects and characters are strewn within the writing with a natural flow and ease and it feels as if one is reading an account from a person that was there at the time of the Chicago Fair. I think in this sense, The Devil in the White City is a remarkable achievement. Many books that try to describe past events with this much detail tend to fail, but The Devil in the White City proved that misconception false.

If you enjoy history, especially one with lots of detail, and if you enjoy murder mystery then this book is a perfect mix of both. It has more architectural story than Holmes, so this part was a turn off. Overall, I think I enjoyed it. I give it three umbrellas out of six.

(What I don't understand is why Holmes was considered handsome and charming. He doesn't look attractive to me:
This is the man that convinced many pretty ladies to marry him. I don't see it. When I imagined Holmes as described by Larson, I imagined someone beautiful, not ordinary.

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