Monday, July 29, 2013

The Devil in the White City

Review by Art Trombley

This is hands down one of my all time favorite books. In fact I have purchased it four times. I have given away three copies and kept one for myself. It is really two great stories in one book. The first is about the World's Fair in 1893. I learned a lot about the process of staging the event as well as all the new technology created just for the event. The Ferris Wheel was a modern engineering marvel in it's time. There many foods introduced to Americans, many new inventions and the world indeed came to see the White City. The story about the architects making the buildings was fascinating to me. There were details I never considered like landscaping well in advance to assure trees would be in place as well as special plants, ponds and more. But then the time came to open the Fair the people flocked to the spectacle and it gave America some credibility as a world presence.
The second story is one I never heard before. It is about H.H. Holmes. He was perhaps the first and most prolific serial killer in American history. I never heard his name before this book. I did not know this story. Jack the Ripper is historically one of the most famous because his crimes were so viscous for their times but Holmes not only murdered more people, but in perhaps more gruesome ways. He was a charming person who leveraged his charm to buy his way into people's lives and then take those lives from them. He ended up building an elaborate hotel around the same time the White City was being built. The influx of naive young woman coming the area meant and endless flow of victims. He was a brilliant charlatan who never really admitted to all the crimes he committed. A determined detective brought him down and when the hotel was searched there were many odd features, including a room whose sole purpose was to be airtight except the gas that was pumped in to kill the person trapped in the room.
The two stories bounce back and forth seamlessly and the book reads like a great thriller. Even the mundane stories about the architecture are thrilling in this author's hands.
I believe there is a movie in the works about this book so I suspect there will be more attention paid to this menace as well as the the heroes who brought the White City to life.
I have purchase nearly all of Erik Larson's other books and will add reviews from time to time. They are all historical thrillers like this but this remains one of my all time favorites.

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