Tuesday, December 03, 2013
Review of a Literary Masterpiece: "The Devil in the White City - Murder, Magic, And Madness At The Fair That Changed America" by Erik Larson
"The Devil in the White City - Murder, Magic, And Madness At The Fair That Changed America." I read this book for several reasons: Erik Larson's reputation as a writer, my interest in history, and my personal connection to the South Side of Chicago from another Dark Period in the city's history. Larson is a historian whose writing style and sensibilities are those of a novelist in the style of E.L. Doctorow, which I consider high praise.
In 1893, Chicago played host to the Columbian Exposition, a World's Fair that its planners hoped would do for Chicago and America what the recent successful Exposition Universelle in 1889 had done for Paris with its iconic Eiffel Tower as the centerpiece. This book tells the parallels stories of the building of The White City, as the Exposition site came to be called, and the darker world of serial mass murder that took place just a few blocks away near the stock yards that gave Chicago its reputation and its stench.
The telling of these parallels stories is accomplished with great literary style. The reader follows the struggles of architect Daniel Burnham as he and his team of colleagues and manifold critics fight to gain financial and artistic control over the building of the Fair that would change the landscape of America. Alongside this gripping tale, Larson reveals the stunning treachery of Dr. Henry Holmes as he plotted to capture, torment and eventual kill numberless innocent young woman who were drawn to the city by the promise of employment and excitement.
The resulting literary work is a cautionary tale that warns that monumental civic achievement is hardly ever attained without great personal sacrifice and the concomitant exploitation perpetrated by those who would prey upon the innocence of those drawn to the bright lights of the city. Larson possesses a keen author's eye for personal peculiarities and idiosyncrasies; he also employs an architect's perception for details of place. The result is a work of history that draws in the reader as does the most compelling work of fiction. This book is an achievement well deserving of its Best Seller status and literary awards..