73. The Devil in the White City - Erik Larson

Sunday, July 20, 2008
The Devil in the White City (Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair That Changed America) reads like a great murder mystery because it is one. Unlike the tales of Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes, this one...is real. Written almost as if it were a novel, the book is the tale of two men: one, an architect responsible for overseeing the construction of the Chicago world fair; the other, a charasmatic doctor with a habit of wooing beautiful women who end up suddenly disappearing without a trace.

The two men's stories are seemingly unrelated. The one thing they do have in common though is Chicago's World Fair in 1893. Nicknamed the White City for it's majestic all white architecture (on the main buildings), it will be the crowning achievement for the architect, provided he can pull it off. Numerous delays due to labour strikes, bad weather, and the overwhelming amount of planning involved all threaten to derail the official opening. For the Doctor, it's clean streets lit by electric lights provide plenty of easy prey, most of whom seem to vanish with little notice amongst the hundreds of thousands who visit the fair each week.

The positives? The writing style. For those readers who often steer clear of non-fiction, they needn't worry. This is NOT a history book. Written in a style characteristic of the latest fictional murder mystery or thriller, it's sure to please. Switching back and forth between the tales of both men, Larson's choice of writing style keeps the reader hooked and eager to turn each page to see what will happen next. Even though the hardcover edition of the book weighs in at almost 400 pages, you'll be able (and willing) to read through this book in no time. I managed to polish it off over the course of a weekend. Additionally, the tale of H.H. Holmes (born Herman Webster Mudgett) is one I don't think many people are familiar with. His crimes were committed during the late 19th century and, despite killing anywhere from 9 - 200 people (estimates vary) which would make him one of America's first, and possibly most prolific, seriel killers, I can safely say that I don't ever remember hearing about him before this book.

The negatives? The writing style. While I enjoyed reading the book immensely, it didn't always have the ring of "true crime" to it. The fictional style Larson employs includes a great deal of what can only be described as speculation and artistic license regarding the thoughts of Holmes' victims and other "characters" in the book. However, this can be overlooked given how engaging a read it was. And again - footnotes. If Larson had chosen to take a more traditional approach to writing non-fiction, he may have decided to include at least numbers to reference the notes at the back of the book. However, based on how he's chosen to present the story, it's easy to see why he's chosen to not include the numbers. While I understand, it's still frustrating to come across the foot/endnotes purely by accident when you're halfway through the book. After having this happen with a previous book, I've learned my lesson and will be reading through the tables of contents in future books more closely, as well as flipping through to see if there's something I might want to refer to before diving into the first chapters.

If you're interested in true crime, murder mysteries, or 19th century American architecture, I'd definately recommend The Devil in the White City. Highly entertaining (but not in a gruesome, morbid sort of way ... I'm not like that ... really .... I'm not ...)

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