A hugely enjoyable, readable and informative book on a subject that would not necessarily sell itself from the bookshelves. The Devil in the White City is a history of the bidding, creation and construction of the Chicago World Fair 1893, the Columbine Festival in honour of the 500th anniversary of Columbus's discovery of the new world. Much attention was focused on the largest cities in the USA as they vied for the honour of hosting the world fair. In the end Chicago is victorious, and the city elects one of its own most successful sons to be the lead architect. On the dark side on this balanced, Tao-like book is the story of Dr H.H. Holmes. This gentleman has the dubious honour of being America's first recorded serial killer. His 'career' mirrored the construction at the world fair, and of course took place just a stones throw from the festival's building site. It reached its apogee as the country's attention was focused on Chicago, and the details would shock a still naïve country. Erik Larson is a spectacularly lucid writer. One imagines that whatever he turns his pen to will come out as gold plated as this. Whilst it might seem that the machinations over the building of a world fair over 100 years ago would not survive as a matter of interest, Larson proves that a book is as interesting as the person telling the story. Larson uses key historical details, diaries, letters, weather reports and newspapers to evoke a complete world and bygone age. He tells us of the moods, health conditions and character of the people involved and even whether they would have been rained or shone on by careful dredging of meteorological records. An example of the gloriously pleasing phraseology is his description of various meals which the worthies of the city treated themselves to. After reproducing the menu in its entirety, Larson notes wryly that it was a wonder that the city's leading dignatories had working arteries at all. In a a similar vein Larson wonders whether the plan for an extending, pneumatic tower should have featured a bordello rather than the planned café. It is in switching between the two stories, that of destruction and creation, building and cruelty, wonder and death that the book really wins. There is an amazing pace fashioned out of the knowledge that both stories are hurtling to vastly different end points - worldwide success for the fair and the discovery of Holmes's brutal crimes. Accompanied by the forensic eye for research and detail, a silken writing style and a story of fascinating personalities it is certain that this book is one of the best narrative histories I have had the pleasure to read. I am going to enjoy seeing if his subsequent books are as readable.
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