American Psycho Meets American Splendor: Devil in the White City documents two architects under higher powers
Erik Larson’s factual depiction of Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair and the serial killer who thrived parasitically alongside it reads like fiction, having all the suspense, dramatic irony, synchrony, and perversity that could be hoped for in a novel. As the saying goes, fact is stranger than fiction. But that Larson didn’t write this story, per se, shouldn’t detract from our image of his creativity; his thesis is unusual, and it surely took a unique eye to distinguish and assemble its strands. Not to mention the intimidating breadth and depth of his research.
Larson reveals late-1800s big-city Chicago as the mother of two legacies. Daniel Burnham was the first to realize American splendor through his design of the Chicago World’s Fair. H.H. Holmes’ was first to realize American psychopathy through his design of a series of barely-concealed, just-for-fun murders. While their paths appear never to have physically crossed, they worked in close geographic proximity and chronological harmony. Larson sets their stories beautifully against one another: the devotion of both men to their causes, ultimately much larger than themselves; beauty vs. evil; the crushing power behind the city’s ability to nurture both.
He also provides a great deal of delightful detail. His asides chronicle the introduction of shredded wheat and the Ferris wheel, as well as the origins of the blue-collar union, Walt Disney, Annie Oakley, and the Flat Iron building (to name a few). Anyone with an interest in architecture will find that the book centers satisfactorily on the logistics of constructing the Fair’s buildings, many of which were apparently of an unprecedented scale and stylistic beauty. As a certified history dunce I was quite entertained, and while I often lost track of names and dates, Larson tailored this book so that such information is non-essential to following the story. For those with more interest and a better grounding in this context, I’m sure there’s plenty here for you too; Devil in the White City is impossibly rich in detail, and, without giving too much away, Larson frequently draws various little connections between well-known events of the era. His attention to these historical intricacies is very much in the spirit of the novelty and wonder of the World’s Fair as he describes it, and I’d be surprised if anyone before him had managed to uncover even half of them. Well. Done.