Monday, June 1, 2009

Review: Devil in the White City


As it says on the back of the book, Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City "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."

It's an unusual book, a cross between a historical account of the 1893 world's fair and a true crime page-turner about a serial killer, written in novel form. Most of the book deals with architect Daniel Burnham's struggle to build the white city and, since I am an architect, it's no surprise that Burnham's story is what grabbed me about the book. For me, the sections dealing with H. H. Holmes's murder spree were a captivating interlude. But, of course, as Holmes is the Devil in the book's title, most people view the focus of the book to be crime.

Several years ago, I suggested to my book club that we read The Devil in the White City. I had already read the book and enjoyed it a great deal. As I recall, it was a somewhat polarizing choice for the club. Most everyone found it to be a fascinating story, but some people were really disturbed by Holmes's brutality. My sister (and she should feel free to chime in here and to correct me if I'm wrong) commented that she thought the book was quite sexist. All the book's action comes from men, while the women are all victims, even those who aren't actually murdered (like the Fair's sole female architect, who is paid a tenth of what the other male architects are paid). It's hard to blame the author for this, however, as it is the true story.
However strange or macabre some of the following incidents may seem, this is not a work of fiction. Anything between quotation marks comes from a letter, memoir, or other written document.
I think that The Devil in the White City would appeal to a wide range of people. Architects and designers would enjoy the behind the scenes look at building such a monumental space. True crime lovers would like the detailed account of this gruesome serial killer. And anyone who enjoys early Americana would enjoy reading the story of the world's fair. But I will warn you that this book does get into some unpleasant territory and may not appeal to everyone.

Buy The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America on Amazon.

Visit the book website.

1 comment:

  1. I found this completely fascinating! I bet it was a great book club discussion.

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