Thursday, June 6, 2013

Book Club Book: The Devil in the White City by Erik Larsen

My sisters and I all like love to read, and we all enjoy similar books (mostly), so we decided to start our own little book club. Plus, it gives us an excuse to get together each month and eat food and chat-chat-chat, which is the best part. Aside from the reading. 

Our first two books were blah-to-terrible. We read (well, I think I'm the only one in the group who finished both books... so... yeah... girls-- get reading!!) "An Uncommon Reader" and "Gone Girl". 

This month we chose a book that my dad told us about a while ago when we were email-discussing true crime books. "The Devil in the White City" is an interesting look at the juxtaposition of the power behind the1893 Chicago-hosted World's Fair (Daniel H. Burnham) and the country's first serial killer, H.H. Holmes, who set up shop just down the street from the Fair. 

The book jumps back and forth from the planning, construction and execution of the fair and Holmes' story. Larsen does a great job of capturing the time, the culture, the economy, politics and especially the condition of the city of Chicago in the late 1800's. Modern readers will come out of this book with an appreciation of just why, against all odds, the fair proceeded, in spite of banks crashing, the economy crumbling, the weather and soil conditions not cooperating, the endless committees and egos getting in the way of production, and the very short time limit to put on the fair. Chicago fought for the chance to put on the fair, then very nearly collapsed under the pressure to get it going, to get it right-- to show Paris that the United States could do better.

And they did. Some incredible things went into it and happened as a consequence of that fair. Larsen inserts just enough historical name dropping to keep it interesting, including: Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, Susan B. Anthony, Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison, and the creator of the first ferris wheel, George Washington Gale Ferris. Built to rival the Eiffel Tower, his wheel was a gargantuan structure with 36 cars which seated up to 60 guests each, making the total capacity 2,160 at once. Riders paid 50 cents for a 20 minute ride-- two rotations. 

The segments on the Fair are decent, but I found them almost too lengthy, including too much detail about the squabbling and politics of putting on the fair. I found myself skimming some of these sections, seeking out anything of interest, but not really caring about all the mundane disagreements between architects or such. 

The real fascination of the book is Holmes' story. His real name was Herman Webster Mudgett. From Wikipedia: "[Holmes] was one of the first documented American serial killers in the modern sense of the term. In Chicago at the time of the 1893 World's Fair, Holmes opened a hotel which he had designed and built for himself specifically with murder in mind, and which was the location of many of his murders. While he confessed to 27 murders, of which four were confirmed, his actual body count could be as high as 200.[3] He took an unknown number of his victims from the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, which was less than two miles away, to his "World's Fair" hotel."

That, of course, is only part of his story. 

Larsen does a fine job of putting together the pieces of Holmes' life, his multiple wives, his horrifying crimes and especially the multitude of lies he told. These segments in the book are what really move it along. I found them fascinating. It's a non-fiction book, so though the story is horrific in that it really happened, Larsen is detached enough that I did not experience edge-of-my-seat suspense like I had anticipated. Spoiled on fiction, I suppose.

Overall, this book was quite good, and it definitely made me want to read more about Holmes, in particular, but it also piqued my interest in that 1893 Fair. It's so strange to me that they built this city (the White City) and then abandoned it. Seems like such a waste.

1 comment:

Chris said...

Nice review, Steph. I actually found none of it boring; the political machinations behind the mounting of the fair were equally fascinating to me, as was the detail about the Ferris wheel. That such disparate topics, such disparate genres, could gel so well is quite an accomplishment, I think. It could also make a fascinating TV miniseries ... hopefully not on Showtime with too much gore.