The Devil in the White City

The Devil in the White City - Erik Larson This weaves together two parallel stories: "The White City" is the 1893 Chicago World's fair, and "The Devil" a serial killer who preyed on visitors. Larson tells both stories beautifully, encapsulating the dark and bright of the Gilded Age. I knew nothing of either story and soon was astonished I didn't--especially about that historic world's fair. The fair was designed by the leading American architects of the day, landscaped by the designer of New York City's Central Park, Frederick Law Olmstead, opened by President Grover Cleveland, and visited by Archduke Francis Ferdinand, Houdini, Tesla, Edison, Joplin, Clarence Darrow, Woodrow Wilson, Susan B. Anthony, Teddy Roosevelt, Diamond Jim Brady, Lillian Russell, Helen Keller, Theodore Dreiser among other luminaries. It debuted the Pledge of Allegiance, introduced such products as Shredded Wheat and Cracker Jack, helped establish AC over DC as the standard for electricity, influenced the design of the United States capitol Federal Mall and the institution of Columbus Day. Walt Disney's father worked on it and Larson credits the impression it made with inspiring Disney's Magic Kingdom as well as inspiring visiting L. Frank Baum's Oz. It also had another innovative feature built to "out Eiffel, Eiffel" whose tower led glamor to the 1884 Paris World's Fair. Larson builds so beautifully to the reveal on that one I'll let you discover that great attraction for yourself. Larson in this book gives a great panorama of Americana. Oh, and the serial killer, H.H. Holmes? He makes Jack the Ripper look like a slacker. I can't complain about the pacing or the prose--both are first rate. If anything holds me back from a fifth star, it's that this is creative non-fiction, a genre that makes me wary. Truman Capote claimed to have invented that genre, what he called "the non-fiction novel," with In Cold Blood. In other words, creative fiction is a work that, though based on a true story, takes liberties with the facts and invents details, dialogue, and even entire events. Larson even cites In Cold Blood as an inspiration. There's just so much sensory detail and thoughts of historical figures in the book for me to find its facts reliable. One can suppose such details could be taken from contemporary newspaper articles, letters and diaries to some extent, but I don't find that plausible in many instances. On the other hand, I'll give Larson this, unlike Capote, he does supply notes--thirty pages of them. But I can't quite settle into this as a novel, and yet can't quite trust it as history as a result of his approach.