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Customer Review

731 of 777 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An Entertaining and Informative Read, April 27, 2004
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This review is from: The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America (Paperback)
Erik Larson does a bang-up job of conveying what life must have been like in the "Second City" as the 19th century drew to its fitful conclusion. Bristling at the constant reminder of New York City's superiority in so many areas, Chicago's city fathers rallied the troops and went all out in proving to New Yorkers, to the nation and to the world that Chicago was equal to the great challenge of mounting a World Exposition of truly monumental stature. Larson's descriptions of the Herculean effort put forth by numerous architects, builders, politicians, etc. lead the reader to a true appreciation of these "can do," spirited individuals.
Yet beneath the teeming activity and a short distance away from the gleaming white Pleasure Palaces of the Fair, there stood a building of a different sort entirely, inhabited by one of the most vicious, truly evil creatures the young nation ever produced. Larson does an adequate, but not great job of telling the darker story surrounding H H Holmes, the mesmeric Svengali whose brilliant blue eyes and engaging charm seduced at least a score (one estimate was up to 200, which the author disputes) unfortunate women. Unlike Jack the Ripper, to whom he was later likened, he didn't limit himself to female victims. Business partners who had outworn their usefulness and several children were amongst his prey, as well. He just had a penchant for murder.
The sections on the construction of the Columbia Exposition are filled with fascinating anecdotes, ranging from the origins of the sobriquet "windy city (derisively coined by Charles Anderson Dana, Editor of The New York Sun)" to the dramatic entrance of Annie Oakley, barreling in on horseback and blazing away with her two six-shooters in Buffalo Bill Cody's Western Show adjacent to the Fair Grounds. Larson also provides an interesting side story surrounding Patrick Predergast, a delusional political aspirant who turns assassin. He paints a compelling portrait of Fredrick Law Olmstead, American History's premier landscape architect who took up the almost impossible task of designing and overseeing the Exposition's parks and lagoons. The hero of the book, however, is Daniel Hudson Burnham, who was ultimately responsible for the lion's share of the planning, construction and smooth running of the entire enterprise. He had a little over two years from the time Congress selected Chicago from a list of candidate cities that included Saint Louis and New York, to the day of the Expo's official opening. That he got the job done within the alloted time is one of the great marvels in an age of marvels, especially given the myriad difficulties which he and his crew had to overcome.
The Holmes narractive appears a bit lackluster in comparison to the story of the Fair's construction. Larson acknowledges the difficulty he faced in recreating Holmes' vicious crimes via imaginary vignettes. He states in an afterword that he went back and read Capote's IN COLD BLOOD for the technique in which Capote so brilliantly engaged in his imaginative reconstruction of events. The only problem with this approach is that Capote had access to and the confidence of the two killers that are at the center of IN COLD BLOOD. Larson had only newspaper accounts from the period as well as a very unreliable journal that Holmes wrote after he was tried and sentenced to death (he was hanged several months after the trial). It would appear that Larson goes a bit too far out of his way to avoid the lurid and sensationalitic aspects of Holmes' killing spree. One has only to visit some of the numerous web sites devoted to Holmes to see that Larson is particularly reticent to discuss Holmes' sexual deviance. This is understandable, as Larson wants to be taken seriously as an historian, yet the facts are out there (most of them well documented) so it wouldn't have hurt to have included a bit more of the darker details. The book could also have used more illustrations. The Chicago Tribune, at the time the story first broke in 1894, included a detailed floor plan of the "Chamber of Horrors" Holmes built on the corner of Sixty-Third and Wallace in the Englewood section of Chicago. That illustration would have given the reader a better sense of the bizarre layout of the structure. More pictures of the Exposition would have also been helpful. Here again, there are several sites on the web devoted to the Columbia Exposition that have many pages of great photographs.
The books virtues far outweigh its shortcomings and I have no problem in recommending THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY to anyone interested in US History, Chicago Architecture, or just a well told story.
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Showing 1-10 of 17 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jul 31, 2007 8:41:37 PM PDT
[Customers don't think this post adds to the discussion. Show post anyway. Show all unhelpful posts.]

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 8, 2008 10:02:23 AM PST
How rude you are; perhaps it is because you yourself do not have the ability to write a book review so you criticize those who do? Shame on you.

Posted on Sep 15, 2008 9:36:20 AM PDT
Stargazer says:
Well I was coming to comment on the book but you've said it all - excellent review!

Posted on Jan 2, 2009 8:24:13 AM PST
Excellent review. Thank you for your perspective.

Posted on Apr 14, 2009 9:14:11 PM PDT
I am quite in agreement with this review. It was a fascinating book and Larson told a story that I had little knowledge of. I enjoyed reading the interesting details of the Exposition. One thing that it lacked was enough illustrations. I'd have loved to have seen the layout of W.W. Holmes' hotel because it was hard to picture. And I can't imagine why Larson would not have included an illustration of the huge Ferris Wheel. I had to go to the internet to find one. But, all in all, I give the book and the review a thumbs up.

Posted on Jul 23, 2009 12:29:11 PM PDT
I had the opposite response to the narrative structure: I found the sections on the Fair a bit draggy and tended to skip over them in favor of the gruesome chapters about Holmes. Ordinarily, I love learning about history, but for some reason I just couldn't get into the Fair chapters. I agree with many of the other reviewers on one point: illustrations would have been welcome in this book, e.g., photos from the Fair, photos of Holmes and his victims, the Chamber of Horrors, etc.. When writing about the construction of a historical place, it is helpful to be able to see what that place looked like. And since so much emphasis is placed on Holmes' mesmerizing looks, a picture would have been helpful.

Posted on Sep 26, 2009 8:01:34 AM PDT
T. Scott says:
To date, this is one of the best reviews I've read on Amazon. I'm impressed and I will read this book.
Mr. Kendall: Take a bow.
Mr. Gentry: Take a hike.

Posted on Feb 24, 2010 1:13:31 PM PST
Dyan Neary says:
This is an EXCELLENT review. Thank you.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 30, 2011 8:13:13 AM PDT
B. Speer says:
As an architect my reading experience was the opposite. There is always another serial murder but the Chicago World's Fair was unique in history. My general reading experience of this book and others by Larson favor his superior research. His style lack the "grab you" quality of others. Will read more of his books for the historical insights Larson has worked so hard to find for us.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 19, 2011 1:34:24 PM PDT
[Customers don't think this post adds to the discussion. Show post anyway. Show all unhelpful posts.]
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