Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Book Review: The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson


Goodreads Overview:

Author Erik Larson imbues the incredible events surrounding the 1893 Chicago World's Fair with such drama that readers may find themselves checking the book's categorization to be sure that 'The Devil in the White City' is not, in fact, a highly imaginative novel. Larson tells the stories of two men: Daniel H. Burnham, the architect responsible for the fair's construction, and H.H. Holmes, a serial killer masquerading as a charming doctor.

Burnham's challenge was immense. In a short period of time, he was forced to overcome the death of his partner and numerous other obstacles to construct the famous "White City" around which the fair was built. His efforts to complete the project, and the fair's incredible success, are skillfully related along with entertaining appearances by such notables as Buffalo Bill Cody, Susan B. Anthony, and Thomas Edison.

The activities of the sinister Dr. Holmes, who is believed to be responsible for scores of murders around the time of the fair, are equally remarkable. He devised and erected the World's Fair Hotel, complete with crematorium and gas chamber, near the fairgrounds and used the event as well as his own charismatic personality to lure victims.

Combining the stories of an architect and a killer in one book, mostly in alternating chapters, seems like an odd choice but it works. The magical appeal and horrifying dark side of 19th-century Chicago are both revealed through Larson's skillful writing. 

Jacque's Review:

Several of Larson's books have been recommended to me over the years. I was going to start with Dead Wake, which is about the sinking of the Lusitania, but my brother has read both and said to start with The Devil in the White City.

This is a true story that is so unbelievable that you would think it was a James Patterson murder mystery. I was not aware of any of the events that surrounded the Chicago World's Fair, so this was a complete shock to me. The fact that they had to pull off such an enormous construction project in such a short period of time would be dauting enough. Add in the poor soil, wind, and the Chicago winters and most people would have chalked it up as impossible. Through sheer determination, they were able to achieve and even exceed expectations.

I found the storyline regarding the construction and the fair to be enlightening, but at times it was a bit much. The detailed descriptions of the landscape, types of plants, architecture, etc. could have been streamlined to make it a more entertaining read. The chapters about Dr. Holmes, on the other hand, kept the pages turning. The man was supposedly handsome, charming, and everyone was drawn to him like a magnet. He was a smooth talker and conned his way into or out of just about any situation. The elaborate scheme he developed to lure in and murder his victims is unimaginable. If he simply weren't so greedy, he could have gotten away with everything. 

I ended up giving this book 3 stars simply because it dragged at times. I have heard that Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese are working to turn this book into a Hulu series. It has been discussed for quite some time, with a number of potential actors linked to the project. I think it would be a FANTASTIC movie or series, but I'm sure it will be very costly to make, which is probably why it has been kept on the back burner for so long. Replicating all of the buildings for the fair will not be an easy task, but it will be dazzling to see if it is eventually brought to life.  In this case, I think the movie has potential to be even better than the book.

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