Sunday, 10 June 2012

The Devil In The White City by Erik Larson

Despite reading like a fiction novel this is, in fact, classed as non-fiction. Based upon the events leading up to and during the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago this book interweaves the lives of the the architect behind the fair, Daniel H. Burnham, and Dr H. H. Holmes, a serial killer who lured mainly female victims to his 'Murder Castle'.

This book is filled with accurate details and descriptions that bring the scenes and the troubles and tragedies surrounding the World Fair that has to follow the Paris spectacular that brought about the Eiffel Tower. As well as this we have the facts from letters between architects, from the court documents and police files on the case. Everything quoted is from a source with references at the back.

Having been told that it was a non-fiction I wasn't quite expecting it to have been written in such a novelistic form.

We start with the build up to which city is going to host the World Fair, Chicago isn't seen as a big competitor until later on and the shock when it gets the honour is aptly described with all the reactions from other cities press articles etc. On the World Fair point of view  Larson gives us a comprehensive and intriguing telling of the gambles and high stakes that architects, inventors and engineers alike all had to deal with in order to gain the public's admiration and not be considered a failure after Paris' showing.

Drawing on rich tapestry of press articles and meeting minutes as well as insightful personal journals and letters we get a glimpse into the mind of Daniel Burnham and the pressure he was under to enlist the right architects and engineers and sell them his and his partner's, John Root's, vision. This way of setting things out breaks apart the tediousness that many would feel reading about political movements, weather, money and egos at war and instead brings life to the characters and shows how they had to work around each obstacle to try to get it all to open on time.

On the other side of the story we have Dr Holmes, born as Herman Webster Mudgett (that'd make me change my name too!). Early on he became skilled in scams and later murders, he had a mind that seems just twisted enough to come up with inventive ways to kill and easily dispose of victim's bodies. With a string of marriages, annulments and wives/lovers & their families disappearing he was still clever enough to make sure he didn't get caught.

Holmes created himself to appear as a successful businessman and, with the Columbian Exposition becoming popular, he raised himself in people's expectations and designed a hotel as part of his business, with a few 'extras' that the guests wouldn't know about until it was too late. Holmes himself decided who he would allow to stay at this hotel allowing only women who were travelling alone in the city, especially those whose personalities allowed him to charm them and become the dominant one in a doomed relationship, whilst he turned away any males by claiming to be full up. It was this way of thinking, of choosing his victims, that made him even more fearsome - he could get away with a lot and could've done so a lot longer if he hadn't slipped up near the end.

Thankfully, in my opinion, Larson doesn't go into analysing Holmes' mind, instead he sticks to giving us the facts (apart from one or two injectures that are mainly there to make it appear more like a novel) and allowing us to come to our own conclusions. We are left to come to our own conclusions and search out the juxtaposition of the two stories ourselves, with barely noticeable nudges from Larson.

The contrast between Holmes' psychopathic mind and the glory of human achievement created from those of the fair's directors can fail to impress upon the reader at first, but it is there, somewhere amongst the tragedy and horror and the glorious descriptions of the breaking ground architecture.

I have never been a big non-fiction fan but if it were all written like this, with such an eye for detail and an engaging way of writing, I'm sure I'd invest in more books. Larson has created a time machine in his book yet still managed to leave enough unsaid for the reader to fill in themselves. Sometimes a book can be better for what is left out.

A highly recommended read that I didn't put down (seriously, done in a day).

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