Heathpie’s CBR-III Review #20 – The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson

Erik Larson crafted a page turner in The Devil in the White City, chronicling the construction and production of the 1893 Chicago’s World Fair while interspersing the narrative with fascinating accounts of one of America’s first serial killers.

After the brilliant display of the 1889 Paris World Fair, the idea that the United States would host the next fair was laughable to the world, and even to most of America. The unveiling of the Eiffel Tower was deemed one of the most incredible feats in architectural history, and consensus was that the U.S. would never be able to match that feat, let alone surpass it. How would a lowly industrial city ever pull it off?

Daniel Burnham and John Root, the Chicago Fair’s architects, were determined to wow the world and to prove their critics wrong. They assembled the best and the brightest designers, landscape architects, performers, and visionaries and fought forced budgets and the powers that be to bring their collective dream to life.

As for outdoing Gustave Eiffel, they brought George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr. to Chicago. He had an idea about a large wheel.

But something sinister was lurking, just at Chicago’s edge. A madman, putting his devious plans into motion.

H. H. Holmes was an attractive, charismatic man. He charmed women, left long-suffering creditors at ease, and was an extremely successful businessman.

He was also a psychopath.

Armed with facts, while sometimes forced to imagine himself in the minds of Holmes’s victims, Larson brings the reader along the path of a deviant mass murderer as he charms his way into women’s pocketbooks and legacies before murdering them in cruel and sickeningly imaginative ways. After skirting his debtors for years and murdering countless numbers of people, Holmes is finally brought to justice by a tireless detective.

I was sure that I was going to skim the sections about the World’s Fair and devour the parts about H.H. Holmes. I’m weird about the macabre. Much to my surprise, the entire book was amazing!

Larson’s accounts of the conception, planning, development, and construction of the World’s Fair were intriguing, and his writing style ebbs and flows in a way that I found myself devouring every word. I am looking forward to reading his next book – In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin.

The fact that there are sixty people ahead of me on the library waiting list should tell you something about Larson and his skill in creating a classic!

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