I kept seeing this book in every bookstore I went to, taunting me almost, so I finally picked it up in a bookstore in New York (which turned out to be quite fitting; more on that later).
Devil in the White City is a historical novel, with threads of drama woven throughout, which inspired in me a newfound love of historical nonfiction.
It’s the story of the World’s Fair in Chicago in the late 1800’s. The author has an amazing ability to build suspense, and I found myself deeply caring about the outcome of the architects, bankers, builders, and every single person involved in the creation of the World’s Fair, something I knew nothing about before, and cared even less.
At the same time the historical relic was being constructed, we learn about a serial killer who was busy kidnapping and murdering women in the Chicago area, in a seemingly parallel timeline to the fair’s construction. The women who came from all over the world to see the fair would simply disappear, being stowed away in the “World’s Fair Hotel,” in which the killer had also constructed a gas chamber and crematorium.
This writer knows how to hook you, and build that suspense. Even though you know with 100% certainty that the Fair was built, the author actually makes you question if it will get done. He creates rich images to accompany the names and faces, fostering a connection to a piece of US history many people know very little about.
The story of the serial killer almost reads as a separate novel entirely. Many times I found myself more interested in that part of the story, but then it would switch back over to the World’s Fair and I’d be once again hooked. One of the best parts is you can’t quite tell if the book is entirely non-fiction, but I refused to Google anything until I finished the book, to avoid spoilers.
One of my favorite parts of the book was learning about Frederick Olmsted, the landscape designer responsible for the World’s Fair as well as, conveniently for me, Central Park in New York. It was wonderful walking through the park for hours, having a new, rich understanding of exactly what Olmsted was thinking as he built the most beautiful, long-standing park in the world (he claimed the park wouldn’t reach it’s true potential for 40 years after it was built, due to the foliage growing in as intended).
This was an incredibly fast read; I finished it before I even left New York. It sits on my shelf at home now, a shiny reminder of that brief period in the late 1800’s where a city came together to out Eiffel Eiffel, and show the world just how grand America could be.