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Book Review: The Devil in the White City 


Book Review:The Devil in the White City

By Diane McCurdy

Although first published in 2004, there are two reasons why Erik Larson’s book The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America is having a resurgence. The first reason it has crept back onto best-seller lists is because it is basking in the wave of publicity surrounding the author’s recently released effort, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania which was eagerly anticipated and generously reviewed. And the second reason is rumors persist that a film is in the works.

The Chicago Fair in 1893, was a major, a colossal event. The competition between new York and Chicago for the privilege of hosting the venue is similar to some of the squabbling between San Francisco and Los Angeles only much less good-natured. The massive task of initiating and coordinating fell to Daniel Burnham who had to manage engineers, architects, contractors, landscapers and politicians. The machinations and maneuverings involved were monumental. Engaged in the evolution of the narrative were Buffalo Bill Cody, Annie Oakley, Susan B Anthony, Thomas Edison, Theodore Dreiser, Mike De Young (of the San Francisco De Youngs), Archduke Ferdinand and last but not least George Ferris who gave us the giant wheel that became a symbol of the fair and which still bears his name today. Intertwined and unfolding simultaneously is the tale of serial killer, H.H. Holmes, who as the fair was being erected also built a castle of horrors in that windy city to torture and eviscerate his victims. It is documented that he killed 20 but the score could be as high as 200, mostly young women but male business partners he no longer needed and children were dispensed with as well. Charismatic, with neon blue eyes and magnetic charm it seems no one could resist him and as the fair drew more and more people into town he could make choice selections. His depravity was boundless. He made Jack the Ripper look like a sissy. In his confession he stated: “I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than a poet can help the inspiration to sing.”

Mr. Larson writes in a genre called narrative fiction. He takes historical facts and reconstructs situations imaginatively interjecting dialog that gives his pages vital energy. The mathematical specifications of a certain edifice might be deadly boring if the situation weren’t spiced up with the conversations outlining the different opinions of the personalities involved in its construction. This type of writing requires intense, time consuming research.

The bidding for the screen rights has been won by Paramount with Leonardo Di Caprio’s Appian Way Company producing. The film is classified as in development. Martin Scorsese is said to be tapped as director. If Oscar winner Di Caprio plays the killer this will be a dynamite combo that worked so well in The Departed, The Aviator, and Shutter Island. Screenwriter Billy Ray who adapted The Hunger Games is also said to be aboard. The book made history alive and gripping the film should do the same.