Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

When Chicago was granted the right to host the 1893 World's Fair, it wasn't just the biggest event in the history of the city (yes, maybe even bigger than the incident with Mrs. O'Leary's cow), it was one of the biggest events of the 19th century. The honor of a city and a nation was at stake; if Chicago and the United States couldn't outshine the Exposition Universelle, the Paris World's Fair of 1889, then they would never live it down. Paris's Fair had been a marvel of light and technology, and it's finest achievement was a lingering monument to the event: a 75 story tower, then the tallest structure in the world, designed and built by the French engineer Gustave Eiffel.
Fortunately for the pride of the city and the country, Chicago architect Daniel H. Burnham was hired to design the fair. Facing and fighting impossible deadlines, financial difficulties, interference by the fair committee, the death of his partner, workers' strikes, an economic panic, fires, tornadoes and fueding women, Burnham persevered, living in a "shanty" in Jackson Park for over a year so he could supervise the project firsthand.
The fair was a triumph for Burnham and for Chicago, and Eiffel's tower was trumped by George W. Ferris's creation of the world's first amusement park ride. But underneath the soft light of the fair's White City was a current of darkness that would not be brought into the light until the White City was falling to ruin.
Dr. H. H. Holmes, doctor, pharmacist, hotel owner and America's first serial killer, used the chaos and crowds of the Word's Fair to find his victims and to cover their disappearances. An accomplished con man as well as a killer, Holmes created a castle of terror in his hotel before leaving the city after the close of the fair.
Daniel Burnham and H. H. Holmes: two educated and talented men of the late 19th century, together in a city bustling with preparations for an event that would awe the world. Two stories woven together in Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America. A true crime novel, a historical text and an all-around great story rolled into one, Devil in the White City has appeal for a wide range of readers: those who like mysteries, those who like history, those fascinated with serial killers, those interested in Chicago history, and those who just plain like a well told story.

What I'm Reading: Waking Sleeping Beauty: Feminist Voices in Children's Novels by Roberta S. Trites and Seven Seasons of Buffy: Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Discuss Their Favorite Television Show

On My Bookshelf: More Buffy books, and still wanting to get to Chabon's Summerland (especially during the playoffs!)


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