Book: The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson 

Reasonably good historical novel about the Chicago world's fair and a serial-killer there 

Erik Larson
The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America
Vintage, 2003
ISBN: 0-375-72560-1
390 pages (main text)

The Devil in the White City is a historical novel about the Chicago world's fair of 1893 (or World's Columbian Exposition to give it its official name). The title is a reference to the fair having been nicknamed the White City because so many of its buildings were painted white. We see the planning, construction, and running of the fair and we also follow a serial-killer who preys on the fair's visitors.

Mr Larson takes the historical part of historical novel seriously. In a prefatory note he says, "Anything between quotation marks comes from a letter, memoir, or other written document."

The book's hero is Daniel Burnham, the fair's chief of construction. He was a more famous architect than his contemporary Louis Sullivan when they were alive. The U.S. Congress awarded the fair to Chicago on February 24, 1890, but various committees dithered until October 30 before giving Burnham formal authority to begin work. And the fair's opening day had already been set. It was May 1, 1893. An enormous amount of work had to be done in a remarkably short time. Mr Larson is quite successful in taking us through the enormous difficulties that Burnham and everyone else who was involved with creating the fair had to surmount. The tremendous expense and effort involved, the remarkable feats of construction, and the inevitable deadline stress are all made very clear. Mr Larson is also pretty successful at giving the flavor of life in late-nineteenth-century Chicago. The dirt, poor medical care, and bad dentistry are there along with remarkable civic pride that lots of Chicagoans felt.

The sub-plot about a man we would now call a psychopath is somewhat less successful. Perhaps that's because of Mr Larson's decision to stick only to what he could verify. The murderer was naturally at pains to keep his actions secret and so the material Mr Larson had to work with is a bit thin. The two stories are also not particularly closely related. Mostly, they happen in roughly the same place at roughly the same time, but that's about it.

There's plenty in the book about the fair that's interesting or very interesting and some that's quite funny, but I suspect that it would have been just as good a book if it had been written as straight history.

More photos of the fair would have been nice to have and Mr Larson might have saved his readers a trip to the dictionary by explaining what sort of building material "staff" is. An editor might have fixed the dangling modifier in, "figures as diverse as Little Red Riding Hood and Marie Antoinette about to be guillotined" (p. 267) and there's a comma missing between "Brunham" and "Colonel" (p. 283). 

Posted: Fri - July 29, 2005 at 08:21   Main   Category: