The Devil in the White City – Erik Larson
I love historical fiction, I mostly read about Tudor England, and inter-war England. So, when one of my book groups, Sin City Bookers, chose this one, I was interested to learn something, although the Victorian period doesn’t usually float my boat.
This novel is set in Chicago, a city I know bugger all about, and the period in which the novel is set – early 1890s is a very important period for the city. Chicago hosted the World’s Fair in 1893, and this book is about the architect who designed most of it and a serial murdered who was at large during the time it was being built. It’s a novel, though, and I had to keep reminding myself of that. A lot of the characters were real people, though, and the major events were real, too.
It’s pretty much two stories, of two similar-but-different men. The architect, Daniel Burnham, I knew a little about because he designed the Flatiron building in Manhattan. Also, Frederick Olmsted had worked on the fair, after had designed Central Park. At this time, Chicago wanted to prove to the world, and in particular New York (and I am told this is still the case), that it could party with the big boys and create something as impressive as the French did at the previous World Fair; the Eiffel Tower. They held a competition to see who could think of the most awe-inspiring structure and a man called Ferris won with his very big wheel invention. We’re told of the stresses and strains that Burnham was under in order to make this “White City” a success.
In the meantime, there’s a man of various aliases lurking in the city. He starts his career with some minor frauds, followed by some major ones. Then he starts murdering people. This is where Larson must have had to use his imagination the most. We don’t really know who or how many people this guy killed, but there people he was involved with, then they disappeared. Larson creates a believable character for this bad guy, and does a good job of explaining what might lead someone to do what he did.
He switches between the two main stories in each chapter, so it’s hard to get bored, and if there’s one story you like the best (oooh murder or architecture, murder or architecture …) then you’ll struggle to put it down, because you keep reading just to get to the bit you like best.
It’s an enjoyable read, not too heavy, but I learnt quite a lot from it. Leonardo DiCaprio must have liked it, too, he bought the film rights to it in 2010. I wonder which character he wants to play…