Review (not rated)
by Arnie Harris
THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY is an engrossing, entertaining and chilling work that, that unfortunately ultimately falls short of what presumably were the author, Erik Larson's ambitious aspirations.
More's the pity, because Larson certainly had at his disposal the requisite material for a book of Pulitzer caliber.
THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY is the story of the building of the magnificent 1893 Chicago World's Fair --which came to be known as the "White City"-- and was both a showcase and harbinger of the native industry, ingenuity, and technology that would explosively transform the nation in the coming century.
Larson's tale of the architects and engineers whose vision and dynamic leadership resulted in the monumental accomplishment in the face of seemingly insuperable odds and obstacles is powerfully inspirational.
The "Devil"(in this case by no means a hyperbole), the malevolent presence casting his dark shadow on this achievement, is one Dr. H.H. Holmes, probably America's first serial killer. A figure that might have been the product of one of Poe's fevered dreams, Holmes was, by all accounts a charismatic, seductively charming handsome young man (a 19th century Ted Bundy), whose financial ambitions were suprpassed only by his cruel and merciless lust to snuff out the lives of those tourists(mostly women and children) he was able to lure into his "Mansion of Horrors", constructed close to the fair. Holmes was thought guilty of anywhere from at least 27 to as many as 200 murders,
all the while never letting his facade of charming and guileless gentleman slip.
To his credit, Larson deals with this monster in an effectively understated manner, like a literary Hitchcock, providing chilling and tantalizing glimpses and intimations of the deviltry Holmes was about. Wisely he often allows the reader to use his imagination to fill in the unfathomable horror of the man and his cruelty.
Ultimately, Larson fails is in bringing the two diametrically opposed elements of his story together in a meaningful way that might offer a valuable perspective and lesson about the coexistence of good and evil, and, perhaps, the meaning of "Progress", as America raced headlong and heedlessly toward its destiny in the 20th century.