The Devil in the White City
My boss actually recommended this book to me a few months ago. I downloaded it but didn’t get around to reading it until I went on vacation this last week. It seemed right up my alley – it’s about a time period I find fascinating (urban U.S. in the late 1800s/early 1900s) and two I find interesting (urban development/architecture and, well, true crime). The book certainly delivered on the time period and the urban development side; the story about the serial killer H.H. Holmes less so.
Larsen employs some interesting writing devices to tell these intertwining stories. On one track, he follows Daniel Burnham on his quest to not just bring the World’s Fair – known afterwards as the “White City” to Chicago (planned as a celebration – blech – of Columbus ‘discovering’ the ‘New World’) but to try to create all the buildings, the expositions, and promote the fair in an effort to beat Paris’ exposition from a couple of years prior. It also follows Olmstead (of Central Park fame) in his quest to have quality landscape architecture. That story alone was fascinating, set against the “Black City” of crime and slaughterhouses of the rest of Chicago.
The other component of the story – the ‘Devil’ – follows H.H. Holmes, a man in his 20s who uses his charm and wiles to defraud creditors, build businesses, and ultimately kill many people. It’s also a very interesting tale, although the book spends far more time on the World’s Fair than on Holmes’ story, possibly because not nearly as much is known about him. It’s definitely still interesting, but it’s not exactly what I was expecting from this book.
One thing I appreciated from the book was what felt like really meticulous research. His claim that everything in quotes comes from real sources – no reconstructed conversations – is fascinating. The book is non-fiction, filed under true crime, but it certainly feel like a piece of literature because the writing is quite good and it reads rather quickly given its length. I enjoyed it, and will likely check out his other books as well.