Review: The Devil in the White City

Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City is a strange piece of alchemy.  It’s a history of two basically distinct occurrences in Chicago in the late nineteenth century – the Chicago World’s Fair and the emergence of America’s first serial killer.  Either one of these is a pretty fascinating topic, and Larson writes well enough to make either hypnotizing. It’s very difficult to understand how he makes the two accompany each other so well, especially when the narratives basically never touch.

Each side of the coin is well researched and presented accessibly, and the events are particularly diverting.  The World’s Fair was a major event in Chicago’s history – not to mention the world’s.  A broad cast of characters brought a series of wonders to the eyes of the world, and as with any undertaking of that scale, the stories of how the magic happened is at least as diverting as what happened.

On the other side, Larson details the ruthless murders of tens of women by a man who seems to have killed simply for the enjoyment of doing so.  He also defrauded a series of people to finance his murder spree, but doesn’t seem to have been motivated primarily by material gain.  The story is gripping and detailed.

These are two great stories to tell, and in Larson’s capable hands I’d be delighted to read either one.  What really amazes me is how well they compliment each other.  Larson tells each in parallel, with a few chapters or sections of one story giving way to the other.  Because the two don’t interact Larson can choose how to pace them.  I was continually surprised by how often I’d come to a switch between one storyline or the other and be initially perturbed at being interrupted only to get sucked back into the other almost immediately.  To tell one history that well is impressive; to weave two together is amazing.

Strongly recommended.

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