16 April 2011

The Devil in the White City (Erik Larson)

I don't know how many copies of The Devil in the White City I've sold, or how many people have recommended it to me. Approaching a kajillion, I suspect. Allow me to be kajillion and one: if you haven't read this book--and your taste in history runs less towards Great Men and troop movements and more towards the outré--DO EET NOW. I'll wait.

Wasn't it great?

Two stories, related by time and place, are told here: that of the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago and its primary architect, Daniel Burnham, and serial killer H.H. Holmes, who operated a "hotel" of his own design just a few blocks from the fair. I will admit without shame that at first I powered through the fair-plannin' chapter to get to the murderizin' ones; but as pages wore on, and silkiness of Larson's prose drew me in, I was just as fascinated by the tale of the logistical triumphs necessary to design, donstruct, landscape, and run the Columbian Exposition (named for the quadricentennial of Columbus's voyage)--an event that drew the largest crowds ever assembled in peacetime and left legacies as diverse as Shredded Wheat and the Ferris wheel. Too, the story of Holmes, a relentlessly charismatic con man and butcher who managed to build an edifice specifically planned for murder and easy corpse disposal (with windowless, airtight rooms that could be filled with gas at the flip of a switch, and a crematorium in the cellar), is haunting in its incredibility. Both are examples of the breadth of human ingenuity, for beauty and delight or terrifying darkness. First-rate!

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