Book review: “The Devil in the White City”

Natalie Brink, Staff Reporter

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Murder. Beaux-Arts architecture. A crazed assasinator-to-be. Pygmies. In The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson expertly weaves these stories and more into a powerful, delightful narrative of 1893’s World Columbian Exposition. Equal parts thriller, mystery and analysis of the exposition’s effects on America and the world, this book satisfies every one of the reader’s needs.

The book follows Daniel Burnham as he struggles to elevate Chicago’s World Exposition over Paris’ Exposition Universelle. Another plotline centers around the sinister H. H. Holmes, often considered America’s first serial killer, and his desire to kill. Though the two never encounter another, their stories serve to juxtapose each other’s. It works wonderfully.

Larson dissolves the boundary between stuffy, 19th century architects and his 21st century readers by giving historical figures actual characters. When reading, one can forget that more than 100 years separates them and the characters. Except for the fact that people constantly die of typhoid, of course. This book, because of the characters, reads less like a nonfiction work and more like an exquisite historical fiction novel.

The dual storylines also play a big role in making the book unique. While there are too many side stories to count, Burnham and Holmes’ stories are the only ones that last the entire book. The intriguing way these different but connected stories are told is refreshing; it also gives insight into both of the characters’ motivations and flaws.

This book is, for lack of a better word, killer. Its length may turn some away, but those who stick with it will be delighted. Larson is an amazing author who knows how to construct first hand accounts into a coherent story. If you have the time, you should pick this book up as soon as possible. You’d be doing yourself a service.

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