The Devil in the White City by Eric Larson

The Devil in the White City by Eric Larson
Kindle Edition, 7380
Published by Crown Publishers, 2003
ISBN: 978-0375725609

Non-fiction doesn’t feature often in my “TBR” list, but The Devil in the White City has been on my radar since my friend, Lucy, read it in college. She had recommended The Time Traveler’s Wife to me, which I loved, but I didn’t pick up the book until recently.

Marvelously paced, the book chronicles the lives of two men–Daniel H Burnham, the architect tasked with the impossible job of creating and managing construction for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, and H. H. Holmes, a serial killer who uses the World’s Fair and his self-designed “Murder Castle” to sate his sickening blood lust.

The book is exceptionally well-written and engrossing; there is no mistaking that Larson loved researching for the book, and this love is projected onto readers. Larson alternates between Burnham’s and Holmes’s stories on a by chapter basis, a frustrating and rewarding experience for me. I would get so absorbed in Burnham’s tale, that I would find myself almost annoyed when I had to switch over to Holmes’s story. However, such is Larson’s story-telling, that I would immediately fall into step with Holmes’s story, and greet the next Burnham chapter with the same amount of annoyance and interest. As a reader, I strongly felt the “one more chapter” or “I’ll read through the next Holmes chapter” drive, and I found myself accidentally staying up until 2 or 3 in the morning just to finish “the next chapter”. One might think a serial killer’s story would be more compelling than that of an architect who has to overcome a dying economy and years worth of bureaucratic red tape, but I found myself devouring each chapter and equally interested by both narratives.

Larson also manages to place readers in time. There were so many new products and inventions introduced during the Fair, that Fair goers were thrust into the future with wide eyes. But such was Larson’s talent for revelation, as a modern reader I found myself as in awe of Shredded Wheat and Ferris Wheels and rows and rows of electric bulbs powered by alternating current (AC) as were the Fair-goers of 1893.

And on a personal level, Larson could not have captured Chicago more perfectly. I spent juinor high and half of high school in the Chicago suburbs and Larson made my heart ache for the city, and for the people, and for the wonder feel of wind blowing over the lake and onto my face.

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One response to “The Devil in the White City by Eric Larson

  1. I enjoyed this book as well! I like your description of your reading experience – how you wouldn’t want to switch to the other story but quickly acclimated so that you didn’t want to switch back. I have had that experience with a number of books, fiction and non-fiction.

    I have never lived in Chicago proper, though I spent half a year in Elgin, Illinois and visited the city a few times then. Even with such small experience of it, I love Chicago and regard it as what a true and proper city should be.

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