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Review: The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

As Britain froze in one of the harshest winters in memory, I downloaded a book on my Kindle that covered three of my not so secret interests – science, engineering and the nature of man. The book was called The Devil in the White City and to take it at first glance, from the book description, you might be forgiven for thinking it was a work of historical fiction. You would be wrong. Mined from the letters, records and newspaper articles of its day, Murder in the White City is a formidable narrative telling of the real Chicago Worlds Fair of 1893, the politics and chaos in organizing and building it, and the terrible deeds that took place by opportunistic men as the construction work went on.

It is an inspiring and horrifying story. How sheer bloody mindedness can accomplish incredible feats of engineering, organizational and scientific endeavor. Horrifying when one reads of how many hundreds of construction workers die on the job, of the fires that tear through neighborhoods due to rushed construction, of the countless lonely girls fresh to the city who become part of the faceless unaccounted ‘disappeared’. It is the story of the premature birth of the 20th Century – all the technologies and food and personalities we associate with the modern world make an appearance and nod their heads to the legendary figures of the 19th Century. Those new techniques are also deployed in an early foreshadowing of the ovens of Nazi death camps to remove any evidence of the victims of murder. The Windy City is a cauldron.

The format of the Kindle book helped immensely with the enjoyment of reading. To date it is the best formatted Kindle book I have read, with full use of photographs and drawings, cover image, easy to navigate contents, index and notes. Anybody considering releasing a non-fiction title would do well to consider looking at how The Devil in the White City is set out. The startling thing is it could have been even better, the potential for digital texts as interactive learning programs is limited only by imagination.

The author, Erik Larson writes with a clarity and sureness that has you repeatedly checking that this is in fact a non-fiction book. Many academic historians will criticize his narrative approach, but the tightness with which he tells his story based on real records for me demonstrates what historical research should do. This is not lifeless, dead, academic work. This is history for the masses with footnotes to boot. I grudgingly put the Kindle down every night when I had to go to sleep and that is the highest praise I can give it. That and the fact that I have added his other works Thunderstruck (real murder, Marconi and the wireless device) and Isaacs Storm (the drowning of Galveston, texas 1900) to my wish list. So, like, uh, feel free to buy me them if you would like?

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As I will be reviewing books on a more regular basis, I wanted to take the opportunity to ask readers what they look for from a book review? After all, whats the point in writing a review if it contains none of the pertinent information somebody wants when considering a book. So please use the comments below to leave your thoughts on what are the essential elements of a book review.

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Posted by on February 5, 2011 in Non-Fiction

 

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