Monday, July 12, 2010

Book Review: The Devil in the White City

The Devil in the White City is an incredible, intense book. It's the story of the 1893 Chicago "World's Fair" (the actual name's too long!), which survives today only as the Museum of Science and Industry in Jackson Park, and of a serial murderer who built a hotel to help him kill unattached women who came to the fair. Seattle author Erik Larson balances the two stories effectively; whenever the "building the fair" story gets too political or frustrating, the author shifts his focus to the Jack-the-Ripper hotelier down the street. Larson's also a master at witholding just enough information that you're guessing what happens next or what the significance of this or that detail is. As a result, you have a history book that reads like a thriller, combining Chicago, one of my favorite cities, with elements of building a giant theme park a century before EPCOT, a criminal mastermind who eludes the law, the giant engineering project that was the largest building in the country plus the original Ferris Wheel, the politics of Gilded-Age Chicago, appearances by everyone from Buffalo Bill Cody to Mark Twain, and the literally diabolical architecture of the serial killer's hotel.

You have to pinch yourself every few pages to remind yourself that this really happened. You couldn't make this stuff up. The serial killer is truly frightening and if you're bothered by real crime novels, YOU WILL BE BOTHERED by this.

On a side note, I really wonder what is the point of the cultural fascination with the serial killer. When you look close enough at one to figure out how he ticks, you find a blank abyss looking back at you. You find evil. For all this book's detail, I still don't feel like I know what made the killer tick, why he did things, expect perhaps as a very base form of idolatry. It didn't provide many new insights on evil, except to remind that it is very, very real.

The shortcoming of this book is that, at 400 pages, it still feels short. Larson wrote it just right, but I want to know more about what it was like at the fair. More pictures, more on the exhibits!

If you can take the description of pure evil, this book has unique rewards and the Museum of Science and Industry will never look the same to me again.

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