Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

In Chicago at the end of the nineteenth century amid the smoke of industry and the clatter of trains there lived two men, both handsome, both blue-eyed, and both unusually adept at their chosen skills. Each embodied an element of the great dynamic that characterized the rush of America toward the twentieth century. One was an architect, the builder of many of American's most important structures, among them the Flatiron Building in New York and Union Station in Washington, D.C.; the other was a murderer, one of the most prolific in history and harbinger of an American archetype, the urban serial killer. Although the two never met, at least not formally, their fates were linked a by a single, magical event, one largely fallen from modern recollection but that in its time was considered to possess a transformative power nearly equal to that of the Civil War.

The Devil in the White City is the true story of The World's Fair held in Chicago in 1893. More specifically, the tale concerns the events surrounding its inception and execution as well as a number of grisly murders that took place near the fairgrounds. The two men described in the passage above were Daniel Burnham, the principle mind behind the fair and one of the most important architects in our nation's history, and H. H. Holmes, a sociopathic serial killer that gave America her answer to England's Jack the Ripper.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Admittedly, lately I'm on a non-fiction kick and I've had a special place in my heart for stories about architects since I read The Fountainhead in high school (I like Ayn Rand... sue me). The passages concerning Holmes and Burnham are separated by chapter and it would be easy for this to turn into a literary strobe light with one interesting chapter profiling a masterful serial killer followed by a tedious chapter concerning itself with cornice measurements, appropriation committees, and other architectural or political minutia. However, reminiscent of Melville's passages about whale anatomy in Moby Dick, Larson's best writing is found in the chapters about the World Fair's planning and construction. Although, some of the most memorable and beautiful passages are direct quotations from 19th-century correspondence between this architectural landscaper and that structural engineer. Here's one I particularly enjoyed describing the view from the apex of George Ferris' rebuttal to Alexandre Gustav Eiffel's much lauded tower:

"It was a most beautiful sight one obtains in the descent of the car, for then the whole fair grounds is laid before you... The view is so grand that all timidity left me and my watch on the movement of the car was abandonded... The harbor was dotted with vessels of every description, which appeared mere specks from our exalted position, and the reflected rays of the beautiful sunset cast a glem upon the surrounding scenery, making a picture lovely to behold... The sight is so inspiring that all conversation stopped, and all were lost in admiration of this grand sight. The equal of it I have never seen, and I doubt very much if I shall again." - W.F. Gronau, assistant to George Ferris.

All in all the book is just masterfully put together. The passages about Holmes and Burnham complementing each other with the occasional mention of a third party: Patrick Prendergast. Pendergrast is introduced as an eccentric but seemingly harmless character. The reader, through short, concise passages, follows Pendergrast's descent into lunacy. A descent that ends in tragedy when he assassinates the mayor of Chicago days before the closing ceremonies of the fair.

I'd recommend this book to anyone who'll listen. It's non-fiction and informative, but the story contains elements so bizarre and preternatural that I'd have thought it a work of fiction if not for being told otherwise.

Highlights: Seeing the effect the fair had on the world - Shredded wheat, Cracker Jack, Disney World, the acceptance of Nikola Tesla's alternating current, etc.
Lowlights: I would have enjoyed reading more about Holmes, but I suppose there are plenty of books out there about him to read.


hamilcar barca said...

i thoroughly enjoyed TDITWC. i like Larson's style - non-fiction written in a "story-telling" format, and intertwining two disparate stories (one highly technical; the other quite lurid) into one book.

his Isaac's Storm and Thunderstruck are both done in the same format.

Kristen said...

This book sounds so good. I love historical fiction with plenty of drama! I just found another great novel about the Civil War called Bedlam South by David R. Donaldson and Mark Grisham. It is full of unexpected plot twists. You should check it out!

billy said...

can't sue someone for liking ayn rand. i'm a little worried about you going to law school if you think that you can...