Monday, October 10, 2011

243 (2011 #48). The Devil in the White City

by Erik Larson,
read by Scott Brick

Subtitled "Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America," this book was fascinating!  It's the story of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair (aka the World's Columbian Exposition), from its conception (in a competition in 1890) and construction, through its duration and demise (mostly, in a fire in 1894).

The White City, so called because of the stucco-coated temporary buildings spray-painted (the first such use of that technology) white, plus the first large-scale use of AC lights at night for illumination, was a magical place designed by some of the leading building and landscape architects of the day (Daniel Burnham, Frederick Law Olmstead, Louis Sullivan, and others).  Multiple problems besieged the project, and it was interesting to read how they were overcome.  Burnham is the focal point of the story, but I also thought Olmstead was intriguing.

Competing with the memory of the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris, Chicago came up with its answer to the Eiffel Tower of that fair:  the Ferris Wheel.  The Chicago Fair had many other innovations as well, and despite the Panic and Depression of 1893, managed to make some money.

Intertwined with the story of the Fair is a darker story of the Devil of the title, perhaps the first serial killer in the country, Herman Webster Mudgett, aka Dr. H. H. Holmes.  Con man Holmes took advantage of the nearness of the Fair and its power to draw many single women to Chicago to set up his nearby "hotel" complete with dissection tables, gas chambers, and crematorium.  Especially interesting is the post-Fair story of the relentless work by Philadelphia detective Frank Geyer to find Holmes' victims and piece together their fate and connections.

Narrator Scott Brick's voice is rich and melodious, but his constant mispronunciation of the village of Wilmette (it's will-met, NOT will-meet) drove me CRAZY, especially since I have ancestors and relatives from that community!  It probably wasn't Brick's fault, but it made it easy to make the switch to another audiobook I needed to listen to for next month's local book club meeting, and finish reading a print copy of this book instead.

That was probably just as well, because Larson notes in a forward, "Anything between quotation marks comes from a letter, memoir, or other written document."  That distinction is not clear in an audiobook, although it is obvious this is a work of nonfiction, and Larson makes it known in his 29 pages of end notes when he is speculating.  The bibliography is five pages long, and there is also a 13-page index of proper names.  I only wish there could have been a few more photographs and maps in this 390-page story.

Perhaps because my Chicago-area ancestors were living in the city and its northern suburbs during the 1890s, I could really relate to this book - just as I could to Larson's earlier book, Isaac's Storm, about the 1900 Galveston hurricane.  I have his Thunderstruck sitting on one of my bookshelves, and it's just moved up the TBR list.

© Amanda Pape - 2011

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