Thursday, 7 April 2011

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson (2004)


The book is a popular history of the politics leading up to 1893 Chicago world fair and the opportunities it gave to a local serial murder( mostly woman – burnt or flesh bleached off for sale as medical skeletons). The context was the launch of the Eiffel Tower on to an astonished world and the growing myth of Jack the Ripper. The stories are interwoven, which works fine for about 2/3rds of the book when it begins to flag. These world fairs reflected the industrial and economic power of the host country but the wider political implications are not explored. Instead we have a hero Daniel Burnham whose drive and vision made the World Fair and a villain H.Holmes, the mass murder, who together reveal the daily life of late 19th century America. Burnham in common with the period provided exploitative pay and work but came to accept model contracts that shaped 20th century labour conditions. The Fair also gave AC electricity a boost over its DC rival and of course the Ferris Wheel. But however, nasty the villain, he seems unknown to a 21st century UK audience so this unbalances the story as does his final capture, which is outside of the main story arc. It does show how unsafe it was for women when it was the norm to lose contact with people even in the same town due to poor communications or the whims of husbands.

  Amazon_3_star: Decent - share with readerholics but don't promote, and sell or swap when shelves full.