THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY – Erik Larson
  Book Reviews    June 3, 2015     Eric Larkin

 

Take a flock of rare, singing pigeons, gently dye their feathers like peacocks, teach them how to fly in intricate formations and how to safely carry little sparklers in their bejeweled talons, and release them over a dark, despairing crowd, to trace spiraling arcs of hope & joy in the bleakest of nights. Right before you launch them, though, feed them buckets of Alka Seltzer. This is the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, as described in Erik Larson’s very good book The Devil in the White City. So good.

The explosion of viscera is almost literal in the account of Dr. H H Holmes, a serial killer who lived a 15 minute phaeton ride from the fair. Only slightly less bloody is the parallel account of the Exposition’s mosh pit of politics, weather and ego. The demon Holmes is a foil for the protagonist of the story, Daniel Burnham, the architect most responsible for the design, development and ultimate success of the fair.

It’s rough to switch back and forth between the two highly contrasting stories. Larson is as subtle as Holmes himself, never quite closing the circle on either until he absolutely has to: Wait, did Holmes kill her? or Can’t those idiots see what Burnham is trying to do?! Each character is followed so closely and with so much extraordinary detail (about 30 pages of notes) that you can feel their anxiety, their toothaches, their icy, soggy boots. You’ll come to see that fancy-pants Eiffel Tower (raised for the preceding expo in Paris) not as a quaint symbol of douchey Frenchery, but as a Death Star which must be destroyed by superior American engineering.

The only thing one could want more of in this history + true crime masterpiece is a bit more of the pigeon’s eye view. The little people are always the bricks of which these lasting events are built. One of those little people was Elias Disney, Walt’s dad. No shit. How is that for a ripple of impact?

 

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