Thursday, August 30, 2018

Book Report: "The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair That Changed America"

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed AmericaThe Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Larson's book is half a riveting account of the sadism of the first American serial killer -- a figure of inexplicable evil and cold calculation -- and half a dull, monotonous recap of the committee meetings and political infighting that led to the creation of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair.

Having scoured libraries for primary sources, Larson's indispensable research and vivid writing recreates a lost time of juxtaposed pride, ambition and horror. He seems to be so deep in the weeds, though, that he loses sight of what makes his topic intriguing. The chapters languishing on the design and construction of the fair are bores that you suffer through only to get to more of the good stuff.

Eventually most of the dullness fades away, and Larson justifies why it was that he felt the need to spend so much time dwelling on the legwork that went into creating the beacon of science and culture that was the World's Fair.

H.H. Holmes, who built a hotel equipped with a hidden kiln and gas chamber that he used to trap and kill women throughout the fair, emerges as an unspeakably evil man, who was all the more terrifying because his murders lacked motivation. He was a doctor and businessman who sought success and stature only to facilitate the end goal of sacrificing the lives of the innocent to no known purpose.

Meanwhile, the fair that sprouted up around him was a bubbling crossroads of ideologies and the human spirit of progress. The first Ferris wheel was erected as a response to the Eiffel Tower. Chicago came into its own as global city. Buffalo Bill Cody and Annie Oakley showed off their Wild West road show, Nikola Tesla wowed the world with alternating current demonstrations. World-changing minds such as Walt Disney, L. Frank Baum and Frank Lloyd Wright sprang from the fai like flowers in a garden.

All the while, the similarly ambitions Holmes spun his diabolical web in a blind spot. His story cannot be told without also including the fair as context. Had Larson spent as much time on revision and condensation of his languid portions he could have had a masterpiece rather than something that only flirted with such a status.

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