Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America [Larson]

Book: The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America
Author: Erik Larson
Reason for Reading: book club
Genre: Nonfiction
Summary: This is the story of two men told in alternating chapters: Daniel H. Burnham, the architect responsible for the 1893 Chicago World's fair construction, and H.H. Holmes, a serial killer masquerading as a charming doctor who lured his victims to his hotel (complete with gas chamber) near the fairgrounds.

Christine's Review: This was an interesting read. It is not a "page-turner" and often reads like a history textbook, but overall I learned a lot. The sections on the fair were extremely detailed (Larson seemed to describe every minute detail) and the cast of characters were interesting. However, there were so many people that he described I often forgot who was who. The most interesting aspect of these sections weren't the obstacles that Burnham met (his partner dying, weather concerns, strikes, among others) but the impact of the fair on life as we know it today (for example, the ferris wheel, pledge of allegiance, Chicago being known as the 'windy city').

Intertwined with the fair sections were chapters on H.H. Holmes, American's first serial killer. Larson had limited resources to write this section (some newspaper articles and an autobiography that Holmes wrote himself, which historians have proven to be filled with falsehoods). I did some research on Holmes myself after reading the book and found well documented behavior of sexual deviance that wasn't really explored in the writing. The killings were not explained in detail, and whether this was an attempt to keep the book 'less dark' or because Larson didn't want to speculate, I think added some more details about Holmes sinister behavior would have added to the overall book. Larson does his best to get into Holmes' mind, but I was left feeling like we (readers) never really knew him.

Overall, this was an interesting read. This is the kind of book you can read a chapter, put down for a week, and then pick up and read again (I doubt anyone would stay awake reading because 'they just have to know what happens.' Although the book was too detailed in terms of every aspect of the fair and not detailed enough when it came to Holmes, it is still worth reading.

Book Junkie's Grade: B+

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