The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson is an absorbing non-fiction narrative that juxtaposes the success of the World’s Columbian Exposition with the evil of serial killer Herman W. Mudgett. Larson packs the pages of The Devil in the White City with history and personality, making it both entertaining and educational.
I have a love hate relationship with history. In the wrong hands history can be unbelievably dull. Too many times a pious academic has reduced a truly interesting event into cut and dry facts that have as much life as a waterlogged tennis ball. But history is actually amazingly interesting in the right hands.
I had a professor in college who taught European Civilization. He made history come alive! He talked about the people who were part of the history, about their motivations, about the odd bits of lore that don’t make it into the textbooks. (It also helped that he had a dry sense of humor and was fond of throwing Monty Python quotes into his lectures.)
I don’t pick up non-fiction because too often it leaves me bored. Instead I find my history in fiction, blended into novels like English Passengers by Matthew Kneale or Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gould. These authors tell a story using history as a backdrop. Erik Larson, on the other hand, has a gift for telling history as it should, as a story.
The Devil in the White City chronicles the construction of the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition by following the architects who pulled off the amazing feat. Larson makes it easy for the reader to understand the enormity of the undertaking. He educates and instructs on architecture and exposes city rivalry and political intrigue that isn’t much different from the present.
Larson also delivers a palpable sense of what it was like to live in Chicago in the 1890s. It was an age where the slow, dank, filth of cities began to diminish as buildings rose to the sky. You sense a transformation – a great leap forward for America and humanity in general. One foot in the dark past and the other in the bright future.
Maybe it was the time or the task, but the number of famous figures who pop up in the narrative is amazing. You get a glimpse of people like Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, Clarence Darrow, Susan B. Anthony, Buffalo Bill and Frank Lloyd Wright among others.
Of course you also get a chilling look at Herman Mudgett or H.H. Holmes as he was better known. Larson paints a disturbing portrait of a personable killer who excels in gaining the confidence of his victims. It’s frightening how easily Holmes was able to con and cajole people, and how he was able to perform such treachery right under the noses of so many observers.
I was also left with the odd sense of similarity in the intense drive of lead architect Daniel Burnham and H.H. Holmes. Though the aims of each are diametrically opposed, the passion with which they both pursued their tasks are eerily the same. It is not the city of Chicago, or the World’s Columbian Exposition, but the zeal of each that truly binds the two narratives together.
I highly recommend The Devil in the White City if you have any interest in history or enjoy chilling murder mysteries. Erik Larson will convince you that history is far from dead.