The White City is the Chicago Columbia Exposition, a world fair in which all the buildings were painted white; the time the late 1800s during the fair; the Devil is a serial killer. Yet this is a non-fiction book. Larson has written a very informative as well as entertaining story. The Columbian Exposition was a very big deal. Chicago had vied for the honor of presenting a world’s fair, and when they were selected the energy of the famed slaughterhouse city was put to the wheel. There are many personalities involved, not least Daniel Burnham, one of the top architects of his day and the coordinator of the entire project design. He brought in Frederick Law Olmstead and many other top architects. Chicago was determined to outdo the French, whose world fair in Paris had been a triumph, introducing, among other things, the Eiffel Tower, and mass use of alternating current. Larson describes the conflicting and outlandish personalities of the time, and makes us marvel that the thing ever actually got done. The Chicago Exposition introduced some significant items of its own, not least of which was a very progressive notion of city planning, for the enterprise required attention to a multitude of facets simultaneously in order to come to fruition. One of the structures built was then the largest building in the world. The fair introduced Mister Ferris’ first working wheel. The Disney family attended and the fair may have inspired Walt to a development of his own. Buffalo Bill made millions with his entertainment just outside the fair gates (The fair had not allowed him to be a part of the show inside). Weather was a formidable opponent to the construction, as was the state of the economy, namely plummeting.
Counterbalancing the travails and triumphs of creating the fair, the Devil of the title was a young man named Holmes (no, not Sherlock). He had a very winning way with people, particularly creditors and attractive young women. He had some flaws however. Among them was a complete inability to empathize with anyone. He was an extreme example of what we refer to today as a psychopath. He set up shop in Chicago about that time, acquired some property and constructed on it a building of his own design. It was called The Castle, and one might be forgiven for imagining it with lightning bolts blasting stormy skies. For it was here that he murdered untold numbers of people, women, men, children. He designed the building to incorporate a space in which he could trap and gas people. He also allowed for his need to incinerate the bodies without releasing much aroma. His charm kept the suspicious at bay. Eventually, of course, he was found out and brought to justice, but not until he had slain somewhere between 50 and 200 people.
Larson peppers the book with dozens of satisfying factoids, about the people he is describing and about the times. It was, despite some of the darker subject matter, a very engaging, informative, and yes, fun read.