Friday, March 23, 2007

The Devil in the White City

The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson
$13.45 at Amazon.com ISBN: 0375725601
This book revolves around the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, interesting for the turning point it represents in world history. Electricity, skyscrapers, elevators, zippers, and a host of other inventions were unveiled here as the world saw them for the first time. The story revolves around two men, both involved with the fair although the two never met each other. Rich in symbolism, loaded with information about nineteenth-century life, architecture, geography, and short biographies of prominent men and women of the day, with suspense and the macabre to keep it interesting.
The first of the two major characters is Daniel Hudson Burnham, an architect who becomes director of the Chicago World's Fair. Given only two years to design and build the most innovative and impressive fair ever seen, he enlists the help of the country's most prominent architects who spend as much time squabbling as building. The previous World's Fair had taken place in Paris and had hosted the Eiffel Tower, not an easy act to follow. The question of what the Chicagoans could build to match this accomplishment is the driving force behind much of their struggle. What they come up with will surprise you, but some of the rejected ideas are just as entertaining. Lots of brandy and cigars in Burnham's part of the story, and the urgency to finish the plans and start building through the harsh Illinois winter.
The second major character actually changes his name several times, but is generally known as Henry H. Holmes, a doctor and entrepreneur who builds a hotel nearby. Largely unheard of now, Holmes was in fact one of America's first serial killers, a contemporary of Jack the Ripper. Hidden in the basement of his hotel was a sound-proof torture chamber complete with a crematorium for disposing of the bodies. Construction of the fair attracted thousands to the city, and Holmes would hire or befriend many innocent young men and women only to trap them in his sinister underground lair. At one point he's on the run from the law with two children. He often murders people who work for him rather than pay their salaries. A real bad dude, and his story casts a dark shadow over the book and gives it some much needed conflict.
Overall, it's easy to get into, not too long (432 pages), and would make a terrific choice for a book discussion group. Disturbing at times, yet it filled in a gap in my knowledge of history with a fast-paced story that kept me interested.

3 comments:

about a boy said...

oh my god! 2 books in a row that ive read and loved! this book was amazing! and always give it as a recommendation when asked for a good fiction-ish book.

about a boy said...

wow! 2 books in a row that ive read and loved! this is such a great book and always recommend it when asked for a good fiction-ish book.

M&B said...

I read it too, in Dutch. Quite good, indeed.