Larson tells the stories of two men: Daniel H. Burnham, the architect responsible for the fair’s construction, and H.H. Holmes, a serial killer masquerading as a charming doctor.
Burnham’s challenge was immense. In a short period of time, he was forced to overcome the death of his partner and numerous other obstacles to construct the famous “White City” around which the fair was built. His efforts to complete the project, and the fair’s incredible success, are skillfully related along with entertaining appearances by such notables as Buffalo Bill Cody, Susan B. Anthony, and Thomas Edison.
The activities of the sinister Dr. Holmes, who is believed to be responsible for scores of murders around the time of the fair, are equally remarkable. He devised and erected the World’s Fair Hotel, complete with crematorium and gas chamber, near the fairgrounds and used the event as well as his own charismatic personality to lure victims.
I really disliked this book. It was too wordy and descriptive and I went into it thinking it was going to be an interesting true crime novel, and it turned out to be a historical novel. I think the biggest problem was that there were two narratives, one about the building of the White City, and one about the murderer, Dr. Holmes. I obviously found the Dr. Holmes chapters far more interesting, but the majority of this novel wasn’t about him.
I only enjoy narrative non-fiction when it’s true crime, and this was pretty disappointing. While I appreciate the amount and the depth of Erik Larson’s research, I think a lot of the narration was based around speculation. There’s no way to know how the characters were feeling, but Larson makes assumptions about their innermost thoughts and feelings.
He’s also entirely too descriptive. He bogs down the pacing of the novel with these useless facts and it makes slogging through the book a chore. I had to give up about halfway through. While I know this book has a lot of fans, I only recommend it to those who love history and want to completely immerse themselves in the minutiae of the building of the White City and what happened after. Otherwise, this book won’t hold your interest.