I first came across Erik Larson about five years ago when I picked up his Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania and was instantly drawn into his narrative style. It reminded me somewhat of Edmund Morris (Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan) but much-much better.
The buzz surrounding Larson’s The Devil in the White City (more than ten years ago) was considerable. Ah, but was the attention worth it?
It’s a fine read that manages to be both incredibly informative and uncomfortably entertaining – no easy task!
I had heard of H.H. Holmes, (the devil) but knew little of his story. Larson brings that macabre story to life in the midst of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair where Holmes resided for a handful of years, working his way up from laborer to real estate investor – and murderer.
Holmes was, if not a brilliant man, certainly an ambitious one. It was that ambition combined with a mile-wide amoral streak, that ultimately manifested in his penchant for killing. He didn’t murder for lust or revenge, but out of convenience.
By his own account he killed some 200 people. That number was quite possibly exaggerated, but whether it’s ten or two-hundred, H.H. Holmes was a serial killer whose victims included men, women, and even children.
The Devil in the White City is a novel that manages to be even greater than the sum of its parts – an uncompromising look at America’s Gilded Age where truth really is more bizarre and unsettling than fiction. Larson weaves a mystical narrative that pulls you in, then when you instinctively flinch, drags you along for the rest of it.
One review called Larson a historian with a novelist’s soul. That’s quite accurate and The Devil in the White City is quite good because it shows how some of us can be so very-very bad…
D.W. Ulsterman is a bestselling author and socio-political commentator.
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