Welcome to the first installment of On the Shelf where I review books that have been out for a while but that you may be interested in going back and picking up (which really for me defines all books). I noted in my first instalment of In Stores Now that I had intended to write about Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America before realizing it was almost twelve years old. Well for On the Shelf a dozen years is nothing to stand in the way of a good (or bad) review. So here we go!
The first thing to note is that this novel is not actually a novel rather it is a meticulously researched piece of non-fiction masquerading as a novel. But boy does it read like a novel. Larson intricately weaves together the tales of Daniel Burnham chief architect of the 1893 World’s Colombian Exposition (or as it was/is more commonly known the Chicago’s World’s Fair) and H. H. Holmes, commonly held as America’s first serial killer, who used the fair to lure his victims to their deaths.
The book reads fast. Fast enough that the reader hardly notices that they are being stuffed full of historical fact after historical fact. It is the rare author who can effectively dramatize factual events that occurred over a century ago but Larson’s superb plotting and mastery of the written word allow him to do just that.
What I found most interesting as I hurried my way through the piece was that I actually found the story of Burnham’s architect’s struggles to get the fair up and running on time and under-budget to be more compelling than H.H. Holmes and his house of horrors for a good portion of the book. Though in the end the Holmes story line manages to hold up its part with gusto.
All together this piece of non-fiction carries you away to another world as well as any novel and provide a snapshot of an American city in its prime in a way that few manuscripts have ever managed. A must read for anyone obsessed with history, architecture, serial killers, or the city of Chicago.
So go find Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America on the shelf of your local bookstore now.