By Taylor Rapalyea
H.H. Holmes prowled the streets of Chicago in 1893, hunting females who were experiencing their first taste of freedom.
But unlike the first recorded serial killer prior to Holmes – Jack the Ripper – Holmes did not have to use the cover of night to stalk his prey. He used his good looks, charm, and cunning to lure victims in willingly.
At the finale of his reign of terror, Holmes had confessed to murdering 27 people, though it is estimated that he left up to 200 corpses. Only four were found.
Leading up to the same year, architect Daniel H. Burnham was consumed with plans for constructing the World’s Fair in time for its deadline. He created the playground on which Holmes played with his targets – the White City – in the span of two years, an incredible feat.
These two men’s intertwining lives is the premise of Erik Larson’s “The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America.” Larson’s tale has all the elements of an interesting novel, murder, intrigue, history, and mystery (even though you know how it ends), with a twist.
“The Devil in the White City” is completely true. Larson delved into the history of the period with an attention to detail that can only be described as voracious. Correspondence, police records, and witness accounts were clearly combed through and picked from to supplement a rich narrative.
On top of that, Larson does all his work alone. He uses no research assistants or interns to dig up facts, preferring to be independent in his research.
There are points in the book when a reader could easily forget that he or she was consuming a work of historical accuracy – it reads like a tall tale told in a dark pub. It’s an incredible page turner, and uses relatively easy language, and is also highly educational.
The only disappointing aspect is that because the reader likely knows what happens, the ending feels a bit anticlimactic. For the most part, the historical timeline itself builds to a dramatic crescendo, but there is no satisfying ending in the form of a chase scene or confrontation.
Parts of “Devil in the White City” are gory to say the least. Holmes was a sick person, and some of his sadistic acts are spelled out in detailed accounts. But that’s just part of the fun.
Perhaps the most engrossing part of “Devil in the White City” is to watch, with baited breath, as Holmes seduces men and women alike and toys with them as a cat would play with a mouse before killing it.
The dual story of Burnham is equally riveting. Readers will devour page after page to learn if the renowned but troubled architect meets or misses his strict deadlines, with the elements and time against him.
In an interview with Booknotes, author Erik Larson said of his book, “It`s just the two stories together, this almost miraculous, in a dark way, juxtaposition of this heroic act of civic good will, the World`s Fair and the effort to build it, the tremendous odds against effort to build it, and in the same place at the same time, this killer using this fair to do his equally outstanding work at killing.”