Sunday Book Review: The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson


By Becca Naylor

“I was born with the devil in me. I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than the poet can help the inspiration to sing.” —H. H. Holmes

220px-DWCityPublished in 2003, Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City chronicles a fascinating time in Chicago’s history. He tells the story of Daniel H. Burnham, architect and Director of Works for the 1893 World’s Fair, while also detailing the exploits of America’s first serial killer, H. H. Holmes. Larson brings the Chicago of the late 19th century to life, using journals, confessions, and other research combined with expert storytelling to make this nonfictional tale as engaging as any work of fiction.

Larson describes the Chicago’s World Fair from beginning to end, including the struggles the planners and architects faced. However, the most fascinating part of The Devil in the White City is the devil himself, H. H.  Holmes, the suave man who confessed to murdering between 27 and 200 people in Chicago during the World’s Fair, most of them  young single women.

The vastness and complexity of the Chicago World’s Fair and the people involved is at times daunting. Readers may find themselves lost attempting to keep track of the architects, gardeners, and H. H. Holmes’s wives. Although the vocabulary and detail given concerning the building of the World’s Fair grants the narrative verisimilitude, it is also confusing and distracting.

Larson includes many notable historical figures in his work. George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr., inventor of the Ferris wheel, makes an appearance since he invented his wheel for the Chicago World’s Fair. Frederick Law Olmsted, landscape architect, designed Jackson Park for the fair. His résumé also includes New York’s Central Park and the Vanderbilt’s Biltmore Estate. Besides H. H. Holmes’s murderous life, Larson also references Jack the Ripper and Patrick Prendergast, the man who assassinated Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison, Sr. on the last day of the fair.

A film adaptation has been in the works since 2004, but attempts to complete the project have previously failed. Paramount now has the movie rights to The Devil in the White City and announced in August 2015 that Leonardo DiCaprio will be starring as the murderer H. H. Holmes. The film will be directed by Martin Scorsese, who has worked with DiCaprio in the past on the films The Wolf of Wall Street, Gangs of New York, and Shutter Island.

 

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