Anyone who thinks history is a dull subject has never read one of Erik Larson’s books. The Devil in the White City is my third. It certainly won’t be my last. I’m hooked.
Larson’s enthusiasm for research shines on every page, and he weaves suspense into his histories in ways that make them as compelling as a mystery novel. In this account of the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, Larson leads us from its conception, through the enormous setbacks that almost destroyed it, to its legacy. Many innovations – shredded wheat, alternating current, the Ferris Wheel – were results of that fair. The architecture and landscaping concepts changed people’s ideas about what a city should be. America’s organized labor movement jelled as a result of the harsh exploitation of men hired for the construction jobs.
But Larson gives us much more. In alternating chapters, he chronicles the career of Herman Webster Mudgett, surely one of the most ghastly serial killers and con artists in American history. Have you ever heard of him? I hadn’t until I read Larson’s account of how he took advantage of the fair to lure innocent young women, new to the perils of big city life, into his deadly traps.
Along the way we get a subplot about a very disturbed Irish immigrant named Patrick Prendergast. And just when you think the story can’t become any more fascinating, the author concludes it with a solid detective story.
I finished the book with the sense that I’d visited Nineteenth Century Chicago myself. The Devil in the White City is more than a history. It’s a trip through time.