Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

I picked up The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America for a couple reasons. First, it was recommended in a writing group I belong to as a book that everyone in a diverse book group liked. Next, a book group I am in picked it as one of the books to read this fall. Third, from what I heard it was a murder mystery set at a World’s Fair. I like mysteries, in general, and decided to read it earlier rather than later.

I was quite surprised when I found the book at the library in the non-fiction section. I had not realized it was a true story. I assumed I would be interested in the mystery part and not really in the World’s Fair part when I realized that was going to be mainly about building the fair. It turned out to be quite the opposite.

I never would have picked up a non-fiction book about the World’s Fair in 1893. Adding in the secondary story did prick my interest enough to start reading the book. I’m glad I did as it described a part of American history and a profession (architecture) that I had very little prior knowledge or even interest in. The impact of the Columbian Exposition of 1893 was enormous. Products introduced there or innovated during the building of the fair included spray paint, Cracker Jack, the Ferris Wheel (an amazing story on its own), and the zipper among many others. The pledge of allegiance was even written for the dedication day.

The inspiring story of building the fair is alternated with chapters about a serial killer. There is no mystery as Erik Larson makes it clear that Holmes is a killer from the beginning. Holmes (an alias) is in Chicago at the time of the fair and builds a hotel ostensibly to house visitors to the fair. No murders by Holmes ever happen at the fair, so I do not think the book is aptly titled. Holmes and the fair never really intersect except when he takes a current wife and her sister there. I do not like reading about true crime. It has none of the uplifting spirit or resolution of fictional mysteries where the perpetrator is usually caught before too many evil things happen. I felt that the book alternated between a soaring, grandiose story and a sordid, tragic one.

I would recommend reading this book and skipping the chapters on Holmes, unless you like the true crime genre.

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