The Devil in the White City

Erik Larson


Reading at Powell's, 1005 W Burnside, Thurs, 7:30 pm

One of the main characters in The Devil in the White City is a young doctor, Herman Webster Mudgett, who, in a calculated twist of irony, went by the name Dr. Holmes. More prolific than Jack the Ripper, Holmes/Mudgett was the original American psycho killer, murdering dozens of young women at Chicago's 1893 World Fair. That such an intriguing figure in American history could be wholly forgotten to this point is hard to believe, and yet it's true. Larson's novel is not fictitious.

White City intersplices Holmes' story with an account of the architects who built the 1893 World Fair. Naturally, Holmes' is the more alluring of the two stories. A drifter, Holmes arrived in Chicago just before the fair began. Using charms and remorseless swindling, he managed to build a mansion complete with gas chambers, soundproof vaults and secret staircases. Once Larson's book reaches this point, the ensuing tale of seduction and mass murder essentially tells itself.

It is in the companion story--about the creation of the Chicago World Fair--where Larson's storytelling skills are much more evident (and necessary). For those who do not automatically get hard-ons at the mention of Ken Burns, this story is potentially dry. It tells about the architects' struggles to out-do the Eiffel Tower and build sturdy museums on Lake Michigan's muddy banks.

But with literary tricks usually reserved for spy novels, Larson cleverly creates a page-turning story here, subtly foreshadowing disasters and sprinkling the story with oddities like a tribe of pygmies imported for a sideshow. These touches bring vivid life to a dense and complicated piece of history.

If there is a chink in The Devil in the White City's armor, it is that Larson shortchanges the context of the World Fair--the dawning of the twentieth century. He does touch on this topic, as it is impossible to avoid, but his narrative fails to evoke vibrant details of the rich historical era this story occurred in. Still, this tale of serial killers and architecture is so inherently compelling, and Larson's pacing so energetic, paltry complaints are easily forgotten. PHIL BUSSE

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