Book review: The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America, by Erik Larson

originally posted elsewhere: January 13, 2008

tl;dr: Mankind at its best and worst...

Erik Larson succeeds brilliantly in weaving an engrossing, highly readable tale contrasting mankind at both its best and worst. His subject matter is Chicago's 1893 Columbian Exposition (World's Fair), and he focuses on the architects and builders who created a magical city on the lake, while a pathological murderer used the fair to prey on innocent lives. As Larson states, "the juxtaposition of pride and unfathomed evil struck me as offering powerful insights into the nature of men and their ambitions". He states the truth.

Man is at his best when he is a creator, creating works of beauty and function that further advance the state of knowledge and provide tangible benefit to humankind and the environment. The 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition's greatest achievement was in pooling the talents of the nation's best architects and builders, along with the financial backing, labor and resources of Chicago, a major engine of commerce, to transform a barren windswept park into a shining example of what a city could possibly be - all in the span of two years.

A book cover featuring a dark nighttime photo with some brightly lit, white, elegant public buildings in the background, reflected in a large pool of water in the foreground, underneath a cloudy, threatening sky, with the title and the author's name superimposed in large type

Man is at his worst when he is a destructor, destroying what others have created. The world of 1893 was a more innocent age, as Jack the Ripper in London had just demonstrated what a serial killer might be and do. Unfortunately, the Chicago World's Fair provided the cover and supply of prey needed by one of America's first notorious killers. Additionally, other forces of destruction constantly threatened the fair, and in the end did bring down the buildings (only one main structure survives to this day).

Larson interleaves these two main story lines, and the resulting tale makes for gripping, hard to put down reading. He attempts to be historically accurate (he does have to recreate a few crime scenes in the manner of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood), but The Devil in the White City is not at all a dry historical record. It is a tale every bit as captivating as a thriller, with the added gravitas of truth. On top of that layer the insights to be gleaned about the behavior of mankind, and one will see that Larson has created a masterpiece.