**This review contains “spoilers.” In whatever that means for a work of historical nonfiction.**
Essentially, this book is about the 1893’s World Fair in Chicago and the men that made it happen. Tangentially (unfortunately), it’s about one of America’s earliest serial killers.
Overall, I gave this book three stars. It was well written, and well researched. For me, it contained a bit too much White City bureaucracy and not enough Devil. But, both aspects are interesting in their own right.
The history of the World’s Fair, how it came to be, what it encompassed, and what it took to get it done, is impressive and intriguing. It could have been a book on its own. I’ve never given much thought to architectural history before, and this book proved a welcome introduction to the topic. Larson did a wonderful job making a 120+ year old event still feel relevant. Politics, bureaucracy, the pride of powerful men, all still themes ringing true today. Additionally, Larson’s ability to tease out the events and people that intersected, or resulted directly from the 1893’s Fair that are still relevant today (Helen Keller, Susan B Anthony, Disney, Oz, Shredded Wheat!), certainly keeps the reader engaged.
The “story” of Prendergast as an assassin could’ve developed much more thoroughly. The snippets one gets of him are most intriguing, but disappointingly scarce.
The story of H.H. Holmes could’ve been a separate book in and of itself. Unfortunately, it didn’t occupy as much time as it should have in Larson’s pages. The last quarter of the book, following up on Holmes’ activities after the Fair, was among Larson’s crowning moments. Tying the story together with the hunt for proof that Holmes had committed even a fraction of the atrocities that he may have was exciting. But, admittedly, I wanted more. If Holmes’ case was the media frenzy that Larson led us to believe, then there should be sufficient historical fodder for more time spent to this aspect of the book.
Larson’s attempt to intersect Holmes as a devil that would affect the end of the great men of the Fair and the case investigating Holmes fell a bit flat. Part of it was that the crux of the book centered around the bureaucracy of building the Fair and it’s impact on American architectural history. During the building and exposition of the Fair, there was no real intersection between the main characters and Holmes; and, not enough development of those that spent the time investigating, defending, and dealing with him in the end.
All in all, I enjoyed Larsen’s approach to writing history. He attempted to make history relevant and exciting for the reader today, without sacrificing academic rigor. I enjoyed the way he was able to tease out events of the events of the time that would ring familiar to today’s reader. Additionally, it was quite stimulating to reflect back on the progresses that have been made in areas of public works, public safety, psychopathology, criminology, and even the concept of “evil” in a seemingly common man, over the past century.
My essential admiration for Larson, and this book in particular, is the making history relevant, and useful. Reflection on historical events, and progress, as well as creating additions to the collective historical memory are the supreme asset of the continuation of the study of history. While the book does have its flaws, over all it is a great read. Though, I do hope that Larson dives deeper into the details and connections in his other and future works.