Thursday, March 31, 2016

Book Review: Devil in the White City

Note: I've got very minor spoilers in here. I'll call them out before you get there, but just be aware.

The Devil in the White City - Erik Larson

: A non-fiction account of the planning, development, building, and execution of the 1898 World's Colombian Fair in Chicago, interspersed with the true story of Herman Mudgett (aka H.H. Holmes), America's first documented serial killer and contemporary resident of Chicago

Thoughts: I chose this book because it's apparently a must-read if you're involved in the planning / architecture / engineering fields (I'm in transportation planning) and it was a bit misrepresented to me as an exciting murder mystery. I love mysteries; this book is not one. It is almost entirely focused on the minutiae of the politics and logistics of the Fair, which actually is a complex and exceptional - but dry - story.

The portions of the book about Holmes were extremely peripheral. I don't know this for sure, but I would estimate that the Fair-focused chapters outnumbered the Holmes-centered chapters 2:1. I read a review by someone else who said (I'm paraphrasing) he had the feeling that Erik Larson really wanted to write a book about the World's Fair, but knew the subject was basically a snooze-fest, so he ham-fisted Holmes's story into the narrative to make the plot sound more exciting. That is an accurate assessment, and it is so clear that the portions about the Fair are what Larson is really interested in.

It's not a bad book and I did enjoy it for what I learned from it, but it's not light reading. I actually listened to the audio version and this probably was the only reason I was able to finish the book. The guy who read it has a really good narrative voice and I was a captive audience when driving, running, and walking my dogs. This meant I couldn't really make excuses for not finishing it, like I almost certainly would have done if I had been reading the text version. Overall, I'm glad I read it, but I wasn't chomping at the bit to get back to it each day.

Favorite part: I was pretty excited to learn about Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of landscape architecture and designer of many, many famous public and private parks. He was from Boston and he designed Forest Park in Springfield, Massachusetts! Growing up in western Mass, I always heard that Forest Park was pretty glorious in its heyday, and I just think it's so cool that it was designed by the creative mind behind Central Park and the landscape architect of the 1898 World's Fair.

Least favorite part: The parts about Carter Harrison and Patrick Prendergast only seemed related to the rest of the story by the thinnest thread and I don't think they really needed to be in there.

[SPOILER] Also, one of the few scenes in the book where Larson takes some creative license and imagines how one of Holmes's killings went down happened when Holmes killed his wife's sister. Reading about her terror at realizing what was happening was heartbreaking.

My grade: B-

Who would I recommend it to: Urban planning and/or architecture nerds, or Chicago history enthusiasts.

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