If someone had told me that I would spend an entire Sunday, from morning to night, engrossed in a history of the creation of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, I would have...well, I would have doubted it. Architecture is not exactly my thing, nor are fairs, or Chicago for that matter. Yet THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY, which concerns all of these elements and more, is so engrossing a tale that it is impossible to put down.
Much --- all --- of this has to do with Erik Larson, creator of this work. The subtitle of THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY is "Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America." As Larson demonstrates so brilliantly, the Fair did just that. From the way electricity is delivered into homes, to the length of our workweek, to amusement park rides, to cultural icons, there is a brief but fascinating link between the Fair and Mickey Mouse --- the influence of this Fair is felt in the United States to this day.
Larson takes his readers from the original inspiration for the Fair --- the impetus, interestingly enough was the creation and erection of a tower in Paris, France, by a gentleman named Alexande Gustave Eiffel --- through the excruciating planning, building and ultimate creation of the Fair. The Fairgrounds, dubbed The White City as a result of the gleaming white color of the buildings, was believed to be impossible to construct due not only to time constraints but also to the adverse soil conditions present throughout the Chicago area.
The political machinations of determining the location, structure and contents of the Fair would be fascinating enough reading on its own to constitute an entire book. What Larson does, however, is run this story parallel to the account of the fiend --- no other word will do --- who called himself Henry H. Holmes and who preyed upon the unsuspecting who had come to Chicago for various and sundry purposes. Holmes --- he rarely used his given name, Herman Webster Mudgett --- came to Chicago shortly before the creation of the Fair and, with meticulous planning and aforethought, built a "World's Fair Hotel" just west of the fairgrounds. Only part of the hotel, however, was given over to offices and lodging. The portion of the building given over to a dissection table, gas chamber and crematorium was an area that was generally known to the public until it was far too late for Holmes' many victims, most of whom were young women.
Larson, in researching the enormous detail that is the hallmark of THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY, directly perused contemporaneous documents, such as diaries, police reports and notes of the principals who are his subject matter. Rather than a dry recitation of the facts or regurgitation of the documentation, Larson makes late-19th century Chicago come alive in a way that many would not even attempt to accomplish and only a very few have equaled. His style is so compelling and his subject matter so interesting that this work may well become this decade's MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL. Highest possible recommendation.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on February 9, 2002