Monday, January 20, 2014

The Devil in the White City

The Devil in the White City opens on the Olympic, where Daniel Hudson Burnham, one of the architects of the 1893 Great Exposition in Chicago decides to send a message to his friend Frank Millet who's crossing the Atlantic in the opposite direction, on the RMS Titanic.  Eric Larson presumes that while waiting word of his friend's survival, Burnham's thoughts drifted back to their great project, the 1893 Great Exposition in Chicago.  One of Chicago's most innovative architects and the man who figured out how to build skyscrapers on Chicago's soft soil, the Exposition committee chose Burnham to oversee the construction and operation of the site, and Larson devotes about half the book to the troubled construction and ultimately successful execution of Chicago's grand step onto the world stage. 

Larson does a good job of describing the difficulties, both political and weather-related, which plagued the construction of what came to be known as the White City, and his description of the Exposition communicated the sense of awe visitors must have felt when they saw the first ever Ferris wheel and the gorgeous buildings filled with curiosities.  He leavens this sense of awe with creepy but engrossing chapters about H. H. Holmes, a pharmacist and landlord whose wives, secretaries, and business associates seem to disappear.  Holmes has an explanation for everything - they went back to their families, or ran away to marry, or followed another business opportunity.  Sure, his apartment building had odd, soundproofed rooms, and maybe the gas jets looked a bit odd, but no one put anything together.

No one, that is, until 1895 when Frank Geyer, a Philadelphia detective investigated a case of insurance fraud.  H. H. Holmes had taken out insurance policies on his business partner Benjamin Perzel, who disappeared soon afterward.  Holmes then took Perzel's children on a trip from which they never returned.  This last section reads like a tightly written police procedural, with solid detective work and a few lucky breaks.  Geyer captured America's first known serial killer.

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