I, somehow, didn’t know anything about the Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair. I don’t know how that happened, because the World’s Fair was a turning point in American culture–and it sounds like it was awesome.
The 1893 World’s Fair introduced us to Ferris Wheels, AC current, the Pledge of Allegiance, Shredded Wheat, Pabst Blue Ribbon, zippers, Juicy Fruit, the word “Midway,” Columbus Day, and that snake charmer song that is still a national earworm. It hosted Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison, Buffalo Bill Cody, Susan B. Anthony, and, peripherally, Clarence Darrow. The architects included Walt Disney’s dad, the guy who designed the Flatiron Building, and the landscape designer of Central Park. It had a major influence on “City Beautiful” design, including Washington D.C.’s national mall.
The Devil in the White City most centers on Daniel H. Burnham, the architect responsible for the fair’s construction, and H.H. Holmes, a serial killer masquerading as a doctor who lured beautiful women to their eventual deaths and mutilations. The responsibility on Burnham’s shoulders was enormous: he had to pull off the Best Fair Ever (the goal was to top Paris’ previous Fair, which had introduced the Eiffel Tower) by managing astounding delays, petty fighting amongst architects and committees, terrible Chicago winter weather, labor strikes, instability in the financial sector, and the death of his best friend and partner. And he still managed to pull it off, make a huge profit, and launch Chicago in to modernity. I mean, yikes.
Meanwhile, Dr. Holmes scammed and charmed his way into building his own World’s Fair Hotel, a.k.a. Murder Castle, complete with airproof vault, crematorium, and gas chamber. Taking advantage of the new era of unsupervised young women in a big, chaotic city, he lured one after another to romance and doom. Holmes would either destroy the remains or have the skeletons “articulated” and sold to medical colleges for a tidy profit. I mean, yikes.
The fact that Larson focuses on these two stories makes this, in effect, two books. Maybe even two and a half. There’s the story of the White City of the Fair: the uphill battle to see it to completion; the truly stunning architectural feats; the rivalries; the vision and hope; the creativity; and the fact that it somehow overcame the Chicago politics that contrasted so drastically with the vision of a city the Fair was embodying. And then there’s the second story, about the Black City: a psychopath, murderer, and swindler doing what he wants in a city full of soot, unemployment, and despair.
I get why Larson wanted to show these stories side-by-side: hope vs. despair, progress vs. depravity, dark vs. light. And it works…mostly. But there’s so little connection between the two stories, besides place and time. Yes, Chicago and the World Fair provided a perfect setting for Holmes to catch his vulnerable prey and yes, he did (apparently) take two of his victims there on the 4th of July for a fun time, pre-murder. But the constant shifting between the two stories was tedious, especially toward the end when it switched literally every other chapter. There are also a few random vignettes thrown in that seemed to have nothing to do with either plot: for instance, he throws a few paragraphs in about novelist Theodore Dreiser’s marriage, seemingly apropos of nothing.
It seemed like the Holmes story wanted to be a melodrama/true crime/”psychopaths are fascinating!”, but the Fair story wanted to be an awe-inspiring tale of overcoming barriers on the road to modernity. The problem is that both are great stories, but together they were not greater than the sum of their parts. Because of this, the ending seemed to sort of fizzle…for instance, I could have read a whole book about how they eventually caught Holmes, but it was summarized in a few short pages. I wanted a more thorough explanation of the contrast and connections between the two stories and their eventual outcomes. Not to say it wasn’t good, but I felt it could have had more oomph.
My other general complaint is the prose. Larson loves him some foreshadowing. Almost every section and chapter ends in some sort of “duh duh DUHNNN…”: “One day, they would be known across America by their first names.” “But the disasters had only begun.” “He had no idea how soon his dram would be realized/shattered…” That sort of thing. It got old. Combine that with prose that veered to purple, especially when describing Holmes’ seduction of his victims (“his blue, blue eyes were moist with emotion…he engulfed her in his arms…she had never felt so beautiful…”) He laid it on a little thick, especially for what must have been conjecture (do we really know how moist his eyes were?)
Rating: 4/5: Lots of points for teaching me a whole lot about a fascinating topic. Minus points that such a fascinating story (stories) still did not manage to keep me fully engaged through the last page.
The internet tells me that DiCaprio signed up in 2010 to play Holmes in a movie based on the book, and I hope this happens! It would be wonderful to see a re-created White City. That would definitely be worth the price of admission.