A couple months ago, I was talking to one of my co-workers, Scott, who is always listening to a good audio book. He began talking about the one he was listening to at the time that was non-fiction about the Chicago World Fair in 1893 and H. H. Holmes, one of America's most famous serial killers who lived in the Windy City during the time of the Fair. The book was named "The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America." Scott's short pitch about the book was all I needed. It sounded like a good one, and my hunch was dead on!
The author, Erik Larson, bounces the narrative between the mustering and celebration of the Chicago Fair and Holmes's story. The two are not explicitly connected in a literal way, and yet they shed light on each other. Larson could have easily written two separate books about each topic, but put together, each story uniquely comes to life.
The thread that talks about the Fair primarily follows the life of Daniel H. Burnham. He was the chief architect in charge of designing the Fair, most notably the "White City," the series of buildings that formed the central hub of the fair featuring buildings designed by America's most prominent architects of that day. The book follows the politicking, the salesmanship, the artistry and the business of getting this fair put together on a tight deadline, during an economic downturn, and with the pressure of outdoing the Exposition Universelle put on by Paris in the late 1880s where they unveiled the Eiffel Tower. How would the Americans show up this new world icon built by their rivals across the Atlantic?
Meanwhile, Larson describes the life, deceit, and cold-hearted, calculating evil of Holmes. He wasn't some run-of-the-mill creep. He was the quintessential wolf in sheep's clothing, constructing a building in a Chicago suburb that housed his pharmacy on the main floor, board rooms on the second and third stories (fit with gas chambers and a soundproof vault), and other horrors in the basement. The building was one big complicated machine for victim entrapment and disposal. Truly, one of those stories where truth far outpaces fiction in strangeness and tragedy.
It was educational and entertaining and somber. It shed a light on an era, a city, and series of historical figures that I knew little about before. I HIGHLY recommend this book.