I don’t normally read a lot of nonfiction, except memoirs (which I love), but this book was highly recommended by a friend, so I gave it a shot. Plus, I was intrigued by the book-cover descriptions that referred to the book as a nonfiction novel – which made me think of Capote’s In Cold Blood or something like that – and hopefully not some dry textbook that, while most likely educational and probably edifying to my soul, might be just plain boring.
And, thankfully, I was right, and my friend’s recommendation was spot on.
Yes, Erik Larson offers extensive research to recreate the building of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, bookending his account a few years before and after this major event in American history. And, yes, this story alone is worthy of an entire book by an author or Larson’s talent. But he did more; he made it fascinating. I was learning (gasp!) and was also thoroughly entertained at the same time.
The story deals with, along with many other topics, genius. The first is Daniel Burnham, the architect who builds the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. And the other is H.H. Holmes, evil but no less a genius, one of the first known serial killers in the United States (with a “murder castle” of horrors) who exploits the fair to find his victims. (There’s a third smaller but still important plotline about Patrick Eugene Prendergast who assassinates popular mayor Carter Harrison, Sr. before the fair is through). We also meet a lot of other geniuses throughout the book from Frederick Olmstead, George R. Davis, G. Brown Goode, Francis David Millet, Ferris (famous Ferris Wheel designer) to Kodak to Buffalo Bill Cody and many, many more, who all helped pulled off this historic event.
There’s not much more to say without spoiling the book, except that I found the first half of the book more educational and the second half of the book more entertaining (and much easier to read). If I have one complaint (a big one), it’s that Larson didn’t discuss Frank Geyer enough – Geyer is the genius detective, from the famed Pinkerton Detective Agency, whose relentless determination in getting his man led to an epic cross-country investigation that ends the book with a much bigger bang than I ever expected. Geyer deserves his own book!
Nonetheless, The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson is an excellent read that makes learning fun.