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BOOK in review: The Devil in the White City

If you enjoy reading history infused with the crackling tension of fiction, then you will find &

The Devil in the White City&

to be one heck of a tale. It features a compelling juxtaposition of two fascinating characters, both of whom left their indelible mark on the Chicago of 1893, during that high water period when the legendary World&

s Fair was won built, against all odds. The Fair and the events that satellited around it would change the landscape of the city forever.

Daniel H. Burnham, famed architect, was the driving force behind the creation of the Fair &

its buildings and expositions. It was a Herculean task, from designing and building the many structures, to landscaping the vast grounds, to coordinating countless dramatic exhibitions drawn from all over the world. It was called White City for the grand and sumptuous buildings which were stunning when viewed from afar, all painted a glowing, almost incandescent white.

While Burnham was completely in the grip of pulling together what many thought would be an impossible task, securing Chicago and America&

s place in the world (the bar having been set impossibly high by the previous World&

s Fair in Paris), a local doctor, businessman, pharmacist, one H.H. Holmes, was busy building a hotel designed specifically to ensnare young women, luring them like so many moths to a flame. As it turned out, he proved also to be a monster and once theses transplants to Chicago, eager to be fashionably independent, entered his employee, ostensibly as secretary or assistant, they soon disappeared, never to be seen again. What happened to them makes for page-turning reading as Larson creates a profile of a serial killer who was benignly dressed in the lamb&

s clothing, never suspected of being anything more than charming.

That &

White City&

is solid history, makes the book all the more captivating and chilling. Larson writes in the narrative style of fiction though the depth and breadth of the book is profound. He combines meticulous research with a sense of the dramatic and places the reader squarely in Chicago during a time that was extraordinarily wonderful and dangerous. Larson achieves this heightened verisimilitude through detailed descriptions of the people and the streets of Chicago, as well as very personal anecdotes that illuminate and broaden the scope of the work.

Call it creative nonfiction, or docu-fiction. What it does is chronicle a historic achievement with an intriguing subtext of 19th century forensics. It&

s not a whodunit; rather it&

s a how could he have dunit, so malevolent is the crime. As well, Larson weaves into the story countless interesting men and women who were part of this magical achievement, an achievement that was, in some respects, symbolized by the giant Ferris wheel that graced the Fair, designed by an engineer, George H.G. Ferris, and, like the Fair itself, seemed in the planning all but impossible to construct.

The Fair was conceived by a few, built by thousands, and enjoyed by hundreds of thousands, men women and children, who were drawn to the event from all over the country and the world. &

White City&

is a great read and testimony to Erik Larson&

s ingenious melding of fact and fiction.

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