The Devil in the White City

Glad I made the decision to read this book, rather than listen to it on the commute. Erik Larson’s “The Devil in the White City” is a masterful work of non-fiction, able not only to re-tell two compelling true stories, but also link them in a logical fashion.

Larson focuses on two men. Daniel Burnham, lead architect and driving force behind the 1890s Chicago World’s Fair, is depicted as brilliant and visionary, yet also maniacal and controlling. Plagued by natural and man-made disasters, constantly behind schedule and over budget, the World’s Fair depicted by Larson seems ever on the brink of failure, and when the Fair (dubbed “the White City” by the press) does open, its subsequent fantastic success is largely credited to Burnham’s genius and ambition.

Dr. H.H. Holmes is a genius of a different sort. One of America’s most infamous serial killers, Holmes operated a hotel just outside the World’s Fair, and Larson presents evidence (never brought into court — Holmes would be convicted and executed for murders committed outside Chicago) that Holmes used the hotel to lure dozens of young women to their deaths. While the author never shows admiration for Holmes’ act, the book does marvel at his ability to operate his “murder castle” and conduct numerous swindles for many years without being caught.

When faced with crimes as horrible as Holmes’, there are two likely but opposite reactions — either to question and attempt to understand how anyone could act with so much evil, or turn away and dismiss those actions as those of a monster. Larson chooses to question, and concludes that Holmes’ crimes are motivated by a warped desire for control, over his victims, over his world. It is the same maniacal desire, used for more noble ambitions, that drives Burnham to overcome overwhelming obstacles to build the famous White City of the World’s Fair.

I doubt I’d have been able to appreciate the complexity of this comparison had I only listened to the audiobook. Perhaps I need to restrict my commuting entertainment to light fiction, or works I’m already familiar with, and save the works that beg for analytical appreciation for regular reading.

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