The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed AmericaThe Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

For students of architecture, and American history, this nonfiction work is a five-star thriller. For the rest of us, I think, not so much.

Note: spoilers ahead.

The plot seems to be the race-against-time for the chief architects and builders to, unlikely, complete the fair site on-time. The fair site had been awarded untimely-late to Chicago.

A subplot seems to be the mutual disdain between Chicago and New York, New York.

Closely related, another subplot seems to be the effort of Chicago to outgrow the gore and stench of its subtitle, “Hog Butcher to the World”, and evolve into a world-class city.

And then there is, I infer, the “Devil” mentioned in the title. Oh, the nickname of “Devil” is appropriate: he was a serial killer with an insane bent toward murder in the most agonizing, strange methods possible. And he was a professional as well as heart-breaking fraud and liar. All that is made clear with painstaking detail. But, as presented, this reader infers said “Devil” was on the periphery of the fair, literally and figuratively. True, some of his victims were ladies arriving to see the fair. But, he also undertook a lengthy excursion of fraud, kidnap, and murder across the Midwest, far from the fair and during its run. This, too, is anchored with painstaking detail.

So, the “Devil”, in this reader’s opinion, is but a subplot.  Thus, again, in this reader’s opinion, the book’s title is a misrepresentation.

Also, the title led this reader to the expectation– however erroneous or presumptive– of a drama of a predator trolling the fair deeply and daily and successfully in search of prey.

And by way of inane quibbling, I can’t shake the absence of a definitive identification of the use of what I infer was a large funnel in the heart of the boarding house/abattoir the Devil built before the fair. Yes, its purpose seems obvious. But beyond its construction, if any more of it is mentioned, I don’t remember.

Many rural women, a considerable number unescorted (avant-garde at the time) were last seen departing for the fair. Never returned. Vanished. Some, of course, might have done so own their own, deliberately, to sever ties with home and seek an avant-garde independent second-start in the “Second City”. Others– probably the majority of the missing– no doubt were victims of predators drawn to any large event, especially one this large.

These predators, and a dragnet to identify them and their victims and their fates, and finally lay to rest the victim’s memories, was what I inferred from the title. I was disappointed.

My expectation might be satisfied by another book out there.

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