This may very well the best nonfiction book I’ve ever read.
See, when I mentioned to friends that I was reading “The Devil in the White City,” I heard some resounding praise, but at least two people admitted they’d liked the book but never finished it. As someone who loathes not finishing books—even before this endeavor, I’d convinced myself that none of my half-read novels were abandoned so much as on hold—the possibility that I was about to embark upon a journey of which I’d grow bored halfway through was distressing. I pictured myself falling asleep to in-depth descriptions of 1890s Chicago, and waking up at 3 a.m. with drool on my glasses.
Thankfully that wasn’t the case.
The details of “Devil” simultaneously are and aren’t important. As a potential reader, you should know it follows two people during the time around Chicago’s 1893 hosting of the World’s Fair: the architect mastermind behind almost the entire event, and a serial killer who masqueraded as a businessman while preying on women in the same city. If you have some sort of niche affinity for Chicago history, this is definitely the book for you, but I would be remiss to pretend any interest in Chicago, architecture or history itself is a prerequisite for enjoying “The Devil in the White City.” Rather, the details are important only insomuch as there are tons of them. Every scene of every chapter is researched with such stunning thoroughness that “Devil” reads like a novel, and I found myself more than once stopping to consider the amount of research that must have gone into this book. (It doesn’t take much imagination: “Devil” has 390 endnotes, and its bibliography lists more than 130 sources). Perhaps the biggest testament to this breadth of work is the dichotomy between the two stories, which intersect only indirectly. Given America’s interest in true crime and the minds of criminals, I thought the story of H.H. Holmes, the killer, would be by far the more compelling of the two. Gas chambers, dissection, secret cellars full of mad scientist paraphernalia—this is the stuff of “Law & Order.” And indeed, Holmes’ story, phenomenally bolstered by excerpts from his own half-fabricated memoir, is riveting. Today, the idea of serial murder simply for the thrill of it seems borderline mundane, but in the late 1800s it was almost unheard of; Jack the Ripper had only recently made headlines. Perhaps this is why Holmes managed to dispose of nearly a dozen of his closer acquaintances without the police catching on (it was pursuit of insurance fraud that ultimately led authorities to discover his more heinous crimes).
But more surprising was how equally riveted I found myself by the story of Daniel Burnham, the Chicago fair’s director of works, and the creation and implementation of the fair itself. Perhaps I am abnormally ignorant of this particular part of American history, but I found myself repeatedly shocked to discover things that were actually born of the fair: the Pledge of Allegiance, the Ferris wheel, the name “Pabst Blue Ribbon,” that little ditty we associate with snake charmers and the Middle East (you know, “There’s a place in France, where the naked ladies dance.”) Other modern-day amenities—electricity, the zipper, Aunt Jemima’s pancake mix, Juicy Fruit—got their first major test-run in Chicago.
And yet, despite his incredible attention to detail, author Erik Larson manages to also portray the sentiment of the time, the way Chicago thought about America and the way America thought about the world. This is as much a story about a city proving itself and about a country trying to attain the world-power status we have forever since been working to defend. It’s about showing that cities weren’t just for high society, or industry, but could also be conduits for majesty and beauty. (It’s no coincidence that one of Burnham’s associates for the fair was Frederick Olmsted, the man who fought tirelessly to bring to New York his idea for a gigantic park in the middle of the city.) The front cover of “Devil” promises “murder, magic and madness” and indeed, the book has all three in spades.
“Devil”‘s only downfall is also its greatest strength. Because of the level of research, there are times when it feels like an oddly under-detailed novel, instead of incredibly researched nonfiction. But it is easily the most engrossing account of history I’ve ever read.
The comparisons to Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” are obvious (Larson even mentions in the acknowledgments that he referred to “In Cold Blood” for inspiration on his tone and writing style) and they are well deserved. Except this isn’t about one incident of murder in a small town (part of what made “In Cold Blood” so riveting was the story’s insular nature). This is much bigger. It’s about the creation of an entire city, and the ease with which a series of horrific murders went unnoticed in the chaos of 1890s Chicago. I hope Larson has it in him to do this again, because I look forward to reading more.
TITLE: “The Devil in the White City”
AUTHOR: Erik Larson
PAGES: 390 (in paperback, before notes)
ALSO WROTE: “Isaac’s Storm”, “The Naked Consumer”
SORTA LIKE: “In Cold Blood” meets “1776”
FIRST LINE: “The date was April 14, 1912, a sinister day in maritime history, but of course the man in suite 63-65, shelter deck C, did not yet know it.”