Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City combines the fascinating 1893 Chicago World Fair with the darkness of America’s first serial killer, Herman Webster Mudgett (better known as Dr. Henry Howard Holmes). It was a time—and a place—where magic and creation and innovation were juxtaposed against the horror of destruction, blood, and murder. I was entranced.
While Daniel Burnham, Chicago architect, worked at building a World Fair to surpass that of Paris’ a few years earlier (during which the Eiffel Tower was unveiled), H. H. Holmes was moving into position to become one of America’s worst, most notorious killers. Both reached the heights of their chosen paths (whether or not that “height” was moral), both did so because of the World Fair.
The Devil in the White City might be a history, but it’s such a well-written, engaging history that it didn’t feel as if I was reading a dry, dusty volume. It felt like I was reading a murder mystery as good (or better) than that of any suspense author.
Daniel Burnham and H. H. Holmes could not have been any more different. One created and built, the other destroyed. Perhaps, that’s why Larson made them the two protagonists, to hold up a mirror to the other. Because while they were undoubtedly different—one a murdering, thieving bigamist, the other an artistic, family-oriented man—they had similarities as well. They worked hard; they were brilliant. They used the World Fair to showcase their separate (and in some cases macabre) talents.
I (somewhat) liked Holmes despite myself because he was likable, a chameleon, able to show people what they wanted to see. So perhaps I liked only what I saw, which was the facade oozing with charm and smarts. And I did like him so much as appreciated some of his characteristics. Even his own jail guards liked him, and they knew his horrifying rimes. I liked Burnham both less and on a deeper level. He wasn’t as likable on the surface, but his characteristics were far better. Far better. He was a good man who worked hard and loved his wife. He was dedicated to his friends and family.
The Chicago World Fair certainly drew a unique crowd: urbanites and country folk, builders and artisans, criminals and socialites. Creators and destroyers. Burnham and Holmes were just two of the mass of humanity that were drawn together because of it.
The plot with chapters describing the process and people involved with building the fair interposed with chapters on Holmes and his posse of death was weirdly effective. I found myself dreading the chapters on Holmes and eagerly awaiting those on the construction of the fair. Would Burnham make it? Would he in two years with outdated construction methods manage what nobody else of the time could?
Eric Larson is a fabulous writer. I knew this going in (I had previously read In the Garden of Beasts); still I’m amazed about how he weaves disparate facts and storylines together to come out with one cohesive whole. It’s writing magic. His theme—white vs black (the pristine World Fair vs Chicago and all the soot and dirtiness therein), good vs evil, creation vs destruction—was compelling. Especially because he builds a world in the gray areas of the two:
“Beneath the gore and smoke and loam, this book is about the evanescence of life, and why some men choose to fill their brief allotment of time engaging the impossible, others in the manufacture of sorrow. In the end it is a story of the ineluctable conflict between good and evil, daylight and darkness, the White City and the Black.”
This is a riveting story that expounds on events in history in such a way that you live them instead of only hear about them from an impossible distance. Also, it’s a story about human nature and the extremes inherent within. It’s a story with knowing for all the old and new lessons it teaches. Plus, it’s interesting.