Rachel's Random Recommendation #26: The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, & Madness at the Fair That Changed America (2003) by Erik Larson

Ok, everybody, I give you permission to tell yourself that this work of nonfiction is actually a novel. Go on, I understand. I had the same urge myself when I finished it.

Because who wants to think about a crazy, psychopath serial killer roaming the grounds of the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 and luring his female victims into his "hotel" where he subsequently murdered them? Ok, he didn't necessarily lure women from the fair itself, but he did capitalize on the massive influx of people that turned Chicago into a boisterous, crowded free-for-all at a time when the U.S. was showcasing its technological and scientific innovations.

H. H. Holmes (not the killer's real name) pretended to be a doctor and preyed on the naiveté and gullibility of women unfamiliar with the unique dangers of a rapidly-expanding city. People who spoke of him to detectives and journalists often mentioned his piercing, almost hypnotic eyes, and his disarming charm. Of course, serial murders were not a new thing in 1890s America, or anywhere else, but Holmes became the embodiment, to many Americans, of the evils engendered by the rush from the farm to the city, the rapid development of unfamiliar technology, and the opportunities for anonymity.

Larson pairs Holmes with the fair's architect, Daniel Burnham, to illustrate how this major national event served such different purposes for those who depended on it. Burnham, worn down by ongoing problems with the fair's construction, knew that it would make or break his reputation; Holmes used the chaos that radiated from it as a cloak for his murders. While everyone was focused on the fair, criminals like Holmes were more or less free to pursue their own devices.

So let me repeat: 1893 Chicago World's Fair, freaky serial killer, fascinating history. Need I say more?

1 comment:

  1. This is one of my favorite pieces of non-fiction ever and probably THE book that made me realize that non-fiction could be as interesting as a novel. Plus, I totally felt like I could rock any random Jeopardy category after reading it. It's consistently stayed my recommendation for reluctant readers of non-fiction because it's so irresistible.