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The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

THIS is how I like my nonfiction! See, Castaneda? Like this! I can’t exactly explain the difference. There’s just something very narrative, conversational, interesting about this. Similarly, Dethroning the King, Janet Malcolm, Annie Londonderry, etc. It’s not sensationalist; it’s just exciting. Written like a thriller or like a work of fiction, but no less serious a work of nonfiction for it. How to explain? Let me quote a very average paragraph for you, from page 27:

Each man recognized and respected the other’s skills. The resultant harmony was reflected in the operation of their office, which, according to one historian, functioned with the mechanical precision of a “slaughterhouse,” an apt allusion, given Burnham’s close professional and personal association with the stockyards. But Burham also created an office culture that anticipated that of businesses that would not appear for another century. He installed a gym. During lunch hour employees played handball. Burnham gave fencing lessons. Root played impromptu recitals on a rented piano. “The office was full of a rush of work,” Starrett said, “but the spirit of the place was delightfully free and easy and human in comparison with other offices I had worked in.”

See, that second sentence is long and convoluted and uses biggish words, but it flows and communicates; it doesn’t impede communication, and what it certainly doesn’t do is brag.

All right, rant aside, this is an excellent book! I started it Friday night and finished it Sunday afternoon. Not to repeat the back-of-the-book blurbs, but this work of nonfiction absolutely reads like a thriller; it’s difficult to put down. Very enjoyable. After years (literally) on my TBR shelves, I picked it up because I had such a groove going, after Annie Londonderry and Clara and Mr. Tiffany, two books set in the same era with overlapping locations – Annie in New York, Boston, and Chicago as well as all around the world, and Clara in New York, with the Chicago World Fair playing a role as well. I enjoyed both of these books so much, and especially the extra immersion in time-and-place I got by reading them back-to-back, that I wanted to go straight into The Devil and the White City next. And I’m so glad I did.

The story is this: Daniel H. Burnham, along with a huge cast of other talents and characters and against all odds, pulled together the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, better known to us as the Chicago World Fair. Concurrently, a man named Herman Webster Mudgett but known by his most-used alias, Dr. H.H. Holmes, murdered an unknown number of people, at least 27 but estimated as high as 200, in Chicago on the very edge of the fair grounds. Larson tells the story of the fair, of the serial murders, and of a larger time-and-place from the points of view of these two men, mostly, with side journeys into several other lives.

The World’s Fair is a character unto itself, as is the city of Chicago. Larson gives us the styles and morals of the time, and helps us to understand how it was that dozens of people, mostly young women experiencing a freedom unknown to their parents’ generation, could disappear into Holmes’ grasp. We see the wonder and beauty and ambition and angst of those who worked to produce the landmark event that was the White City, as the fair was known. We see the everyday struggles that allowed Holmes to methodically go about his evil pleasures.

Larson walks a fine line in trying to enter the heads of historical figures, especially the elusive Holmes, and still call his book nonfiction; but he’s got me convinced. He points out that everything in quotation marks is attributable, and defends the two murder scenes he chooses to portray with the evidence available to him in his research. In fact, as an aside, I enjoyed his “Notes and Sources,” and the brief story of his research there. He even mentions, in some cases, in which library or rare book room he found a particular elusive source. Further, also from Notes and Sources, page 395-6:

I do not employ researchers, nor did I conduct any primary research using the Internet. I need physical contact with my sources, and there’s only one way to get it. To me every trip to a library or archive is like a small detective story.

I know all of us booklovers (and librarians) enjoy that.

This is an engaging, riveting read. The historical value is vast. I’m always amazed by how the pieces of our history fit together. Am I the only one? I feel like there are so many names, personalities, and events in our history, but we learn them as individual bits; it’s always a little thrill when they come together in ways I don’t expect. For example, reading that Elias Disney worked as a carpenter and furniture-maker in the building of the fair, and went home to tell his sons, including little Walt, stories of the “magical realm beside the lake.” Isn’t that a charming little anecdote? Several of these connections are left in suspense, too; if your history is a bit weak in the right places, as mine was, you get these happy little surprises. I like that.

I found this book captivating, and I recommend it as a pleasurable read that may sneak some learning in on you. I invite readers of thrillers and evocative nonfiction to enter this fantastic, glittering, magical, and deadly – and true – world.

6 Responses

  1. This is one of my favorite non-fictions books of all time! I am in love with his work and can’t wait to read the new one that was just released!

  2. [...] want to continue my reading of history and historical fiction in Chicago and the northeast, as in The Devil in the White City, Newspaper Titan, Around the World on Two Wheels and Clara and Mr. Tiffany.) But others will just [...]

  3. [...] Annie Londonderry’s Extraordinary Ride, Peter Zheutlin Dethroning the King, Julie Macintosh The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson Fire Season, Philip Connors Heroine’s Bookshelf, Erin Blakemore Iphigenia in [...]

  4. [...] The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson. Nonfiction. [...]

  5. [...] The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson. Nonfiction. [...]

  6. [...] indicates, this is a creepy work of nonfiction. Erik Larson, popular author of (among other things) The Devil in the White City, here tackles the subject of one American family living in Berlin in the years leading up to World [...]

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