Feminist, Fictionista, Foodie, Francophile

Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Devil in the White City

If you love true crime, you've probably read this by now; if you haven't read it, you should. Erik Larson is a terrific writer and from the first book of his I read, Isaac's Storm, about the devastating Galveston hurricane at the turn of the last century, I was hooked. I haven't read his most recent book, Dead Wake, about the crossing of the Lusitania, but ... it's on my TBR list.

Here's my review of The Devil in the White City, still Larson's most famous work:

The true story of two great events that occurred simultaneously in Chicago—the extravagant World’s Fair honoring the 400th anniversary of the discovery of America; and a series of heinous murders.

This is a tremendously entertaining book for fans of 19th century architecture, the city of Chicago, and true crime.  Larson has taken on a couple of interesting stories and interwoven them in a way that’s not quite totally successful, but which always engages us. His non-fiction prose style is so graceful that it’s a pure pleasure to read.

The story of the Chicago World’s Fair is an epic, the kind of event that writers like Robert Caro and David McCullough have written.  The wealth of detail is enormous and absorbing, whether the writer is giving us background on how to build a skyscraper or letting us in on intimate discussions among all the big names of the time.  (A walk-on “character” hired by one of the architects turns out to be Frank Lloyd Wright.  The son of a craftsman employed at the Fair turns out to be Walt Disney.)  This is great stuff, and Larson is terrific with characters.

As a character, Holmes is the Hannibal Lecter of the 19th century.  You could easily see him at the centerpiece of an elegant, classy mystery on the lines of THE ALIENIST.  On the other hand, if you separate his story from the other material that’s here, you just get a period serial killer story and one that can’t quite compete with the slightly earlier, but much splashier Jack the Ripper murders.

The final subplot weaving through the book involves Patrick Prendergast, who is crazy as a loon.  He appears at the end of the Fair’s run, following his own delusions and only marginally attached to the main story.  We’re not quite sure why Larson included the man except that it feels like he fell in love with the man’s personality. And so will readers.

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