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The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed AmericaThe Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

On one level I liked this book quite a bit. Having taught A Night to Remember, and being a fan of the Belle Epoch, there's a lot about this book to love.

It takes place solidly on the line between gaslight and electricity, between the Victorian social and commercial paradigms and Womens Suffurage and the rise of Unions. It is also set in a period disturbingly like our own as America and the world suffer with catastrophic economic downturns provoked by the greed and profiteering of a few, bank mismanagement, and the excesses that come when the middle and lower classes live like grasshoppers instead of ants. The book is populated with the rich and famous of those times--Sarah Bernhardt, Buffalo Bill Cody, Annie Oakley, George Pullman, Marshall Field, and dozens of others who walk through its pages; others, like Frank Lloyd Wright and Walt Disney are directly connected to the events and characters. American consumer icons are born before our eyes--Shredded Wheat, Cracker Jacks, and a dozen others. Not to mention wonders that are born during the events of the book that brighten our nights and our imaginations to this day.

Then there are the darker, parallel threads in the book--a sociopath and a madman, each with his own narrative thread, moving beneath the bright distractions of the Columbian Exhibition of 1892 and Chicago's obsession with its "White City."

There are also important figures I'd never heard of, most conspicuously Daniel Hudson Burnham. If this book has a protagonist, it is Burnham--architect of the Columbian Exhibition as well as the Masonic Temple in Chicago, the Flatiron Building in New York, and Filene's in Boston, to name a few. He is also a major figure in the city planning movement, and was influential in the design of the National Mall in Washington, D.C. His struggles to be recognized for his talent, and then the Herculean efforts required to bring the Columbian Exhibition to life, are the heart of this book.

And, unfortunately, that is where the author loses me at times. His personal fascination with the intricacies of building skyscrapers on the unstable land that is Chicago, the minutia of pallets, and grosses, and tons of material, the obsessions of Fredrick Law Olmsted (who designed, among other things, New York's Central Park) when it came to the landscapes of the Exhibition, all become a bit numbing.

Additionally, the title of the book implies an equal balance in the content between "The Devil" (serial killer H.H. Holmes) and "The White City" (the Exhibition's "Court of Honor"), but the balance is uneven. I didn't count the words, but at the very least the writing made it feel as though far more time was spent on one than the other, so I felt a bit deceived.

It is hard for me to not be intrigued by a book that starts aboard the White Star Line's luxury liner The Olympic on April 14, 1912; and I feel I learned many things I am glad to know. Also, I'd be lying if I said I didn't find the Holmes thread compelling--after all, Criminal Minds, about the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit, is one of my favorite shows--it's only a matter of time before the writers use Holmes as a template for the "unsub" (Unknown Subject) for one of the episodes. And even poor, deranged Prendergast will live in my memory. Still, I come away dissatisfied with the book as a whole. This is one of those times when the whole is less than the sum of its parts.



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