The Devil in the White City

Erik Larson

There’s something a little uneven about this story which simultaneously travels behind architect Daniel Burnham as he works towards organizing the realization of the Chicago World’s Fair and Dr. H H Holmes as he murders a potentially great number of people in a creepy hotel built just a few blocks from the fair (estimates run up to about 200). Most times such dual storylines are used, there is a point of convergence. Here, it is more a plane of comparison, how two people similar in background can end up in such different endplaces.

The Holmes chapters are centered around his ability to entrance people into his power, with speculations about the exact nature of his murders. The Burnham chapters are focused on the challenges of pulling the fair off on a short timeframe until the opening of the fair, when it delves into the atmosphere of the fair and the feelings of awe it evoked. These sections of the book are probably the most successful in a literary sense, as even the most unlikely parts — the first runs of the first ferris wheel for me — can be very moving.

In the end there are several chapters devoted to Holmes discovery before ending with Burnham several years later. Especially then it feels like two distinct stories, though I don’t know what else could bring them together aside from the obvious connection of the World’s Fair.

One more note: by the end of the book I was feeling tired of Larson’s technique of discussing some person or thing around the fair in a vague, tantalizing manner only to reveal the secret in one short paragraph (a la “The man’s name was _________.”) — I suppose it would have been less interesting to say it straight out, but the approach just got obvious after several times.