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Mr. Larson has gone to great lengths in his interviews not to reveal too much of the plot of his book, so we'll try to respect that effort and not spoil the effect he's aimed for, and absolutely achieved. The ingenious device he's used here is to combine the triumphal story of the 1893 World's Colombian Exposition in Chicago with the lurid tale of one of America's first urban serial killers, Dr. H. H. Holmes. This provides him with two especially effective devices: first, he contrasts the White City of the fair, where all the buildings were painted white, with the Dark City outside the fair, where Holmes (the Devil) functioned; second, it affords him the opportunity to borrow the thriller format that works so naturally in the Holmes plotline and apply it to the seemingly more staid social history of the fair. The result of all this cross pollination is a breakneck pace combined with fascinating portrayals of both the good and the bad aspects of the coming of the modern age.
Strangely enough, given how compelling these twin tales are, neither seems to be particularly well remembered today. The exposition was the singular event of its day, drawing everyone from politicians to royalty to Theodore Dreiser and Mark Twain (almost) to a staggering 700,000+ people on Chicago Day. It cost about $660 million in today's dollars to develop the extensive facilities and stage the extravaganza, which lasted from May to October. But out of this swirl of events it is the architect, Daniel Hudson Burnham, upon whom Mr. Larson focuses. It was he who brought the whole thing together and imposed his vision upon the fair and its grounds. His achievement in doing so and in bringing off an aesthetically and financially successful event is heroic.
In stark contrast stands the fiendish Holmes, who himself constructed a "World's Fair Hotel", a horrific castle with darkened and dead-ending hallways, airtight rooms with gas spigots controlled by the Dr., a giant kiln and acid vats, and so on and so forth. It was in reality a massive killing grounds and disposal area. Into it disappeared untold visitors to Chicago, especially young and pretty women. Here the focus is very much on the weirdly mesmeric sociopath, Holmes, who could convince creditors to give him more time, mothers to leave their children in his care, friends to allow him to take insurance policies on their lives, and women that he loved them.
Either story would be a wonder on its own; paired they make for a truly marvelous reading experience. It is so propulsive you should really clear a block of 6 to 8 hours and find a comfortable chair, because you are entirely likely to read it one long, satisfying draught.
N.B.--Quite serendipitously, just as I was reading Mr. Larson's book, the same week he appeared on Booknotes, over the transom came the latest of Rick Geary's excellent Victorian Murder graphic novels, from NBM Comics. And what should his topic be this time but: The Beast of Chicago: The Murderous Career of H.H. Holmes.
I'm a big fan of Mr. Geary's work anyway--his drollery makes an effective counterpoise to the horrors about which he writes and draws--and this is no exception. But in this case his renderings are especially helpful in giving us a vision of Holmes's hotel. Here's a panel to pique your interest:
-BOOK SITE: The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson (Random House)
-BOOKNOTES: The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson (C-SPAN, September 14, 2003)
-AUDIO INTERVIEW: Erik Larson (Diane Rehm Show, 3/3/03)
-INTERVIEW: Erik Larson in the City of Books (Dave Weich, March 13, 2003, Powells.com)
-INTERVIEW: Notable Writer: Erik Larson (University of Oregon)
-INTERVIEW: erik larson (Robert Birnbaum, March 24, 2003, identity theory)
-INTERVIEW: The devil is in the details: Fortune and fate at the Chicago's World Fair (ALDEN MUDGE, BookPage)
-CHAT: Erik Larson on 100 year anniversary of the Galveston hurricane (CNN, September 8, 2000)
-REVIEW ARCHIVES: Devil in the White City (Reviews of Books)
(Janet Maslin, NY Times)
(Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post)
(H. W. Brands, Raleigh News & Observer)
-REVIEW: of Devil in the White City (Stephen Lyons , SF Chronicle)
-REVIEW: of Devil in the White City (Roger LaMay, Philadelphia Inquirer)
-REVIEW: of Devil in the White City (Bob Hoover, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
-REVIEW: of Devil in the White City (Robin Vidimos, The Denver Post)
-REVIEW: of Devil in the White City (Michael S. Gant, MetroActive)
-REVIEW: of Devil in the White City (MICHAEL J. BANDLER, Houston Chronicle)
-REVIEW: of Devil in the White City (John Hohman, New York)
-REVIEW: of ISAAC'S STORM: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History By Erik Larson (William L. Fox, SF Chronicle)
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