Erik Larson’s latest book, The Devil In The White City is an attempt to tell two true, differing, but linked, stories in one book.
The first, and more interesting, story is that of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition which was held in Chicago. The Exposition, also known as the Fair, was the United States’ answer to the previous World’s Fair held in 1889. Given the widely acknowledged success of the Paris Fair, the Chicago Fair had to be a stunning success in nearly all areas. And, since most of the money was being fronted by local businessmen, it also had to turn a profit. It took time for the nation to settle on a site for the fair and the selection process didn’t finish until 1890 which gave the city just a bit over two years to transform a wind-swept grassland on the shores of Lake Michigan into the most compelling wonderland the world had ever seen. This seemingly impossible task was assigned to the architecture firm Burnham & Root, a Chicago firm of no small renown. Burnham & Root, in turn, recruited many of the top architects of the day to their cause. In addition, they managed to persuade noted landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead to design the grounds for the Exposition.
The trials and tribulations faced by the nation, the architects, the contractors, and the citizens of Chicago to make the Fair come to life were numerous and seemingly intractable, in many instances. And yet, through sheer force of will, the Exposition was created and judged a wild success by all who attended it and many who didn’t.
The second story that Larson tells is that of Dr. H. H. Holmes, an alias used a noted serial killer who operated out of Chicago during the years leading up to and the Exposition and during the Fair itself. Holmes killed an unknown number of people, but the guesses range from a figure in the low twenties to 200 or more. Holmes was a particularly deranged individual, but not much is known about him. Larson’s strict adherence to information gleaned from primary sources is laudable, but in telling the story of Holmes, it hurts him. Since so little is known about Holmes, his victims, his motivations, and his methods, the story of Holmes seems like so much gratuitous fluff shoe horned into the book to sell copies. Yes, Holmes was evil, but his connection to the Fair is tenuous at best.
The story of the Fair, a gleaming white city lost forever into the mists of time and memory, is far more compelling than that of a sad little sociopath. The Devil In The White City suffers from the inclusion of the second with the first. While the story of Holmes could not be told without the inclusion of the Fair, the Exposition itself was magnificent enough to stand on its own without the stain caused by the actions of one, unrelated, individual.