With regard to non-fiction literature, the phrase “reads like a novel” sounds like a cliché, but in the case of “The Devil in the White City” American Erik Larson, it is nothing more than a statement of the obvious. This book is not only read as a novel, it is, in fact, it is — however, a documentary novel. Everything that the author writes about happened in fact and in less skillful hands would have remained just a scattering of disparate facts, but Larson manages to isolate from the chaos of events and persons a powerful plot, which will be envied by the most seasoned fiction writer.
“The Devil in the White City” — is not one story, but two, United primarily on the principle of geography and chronology. Larson undertakes to tell two parallel stories that unfolded in Chicago in the 90s of the XIX century. The first is the story of the construction of the White City itself, a huge and pompous exhibition space, which was to Eclipse the recent world exhibition in Paris, to celebrate the four hundredth anniversary of the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus, and at the same time to finally consolidate Chicago’s status as the second (after New York) city of the United States. The Central figure of this storyline — a nice blue-eyed man Daniel Hudson Burnham, an outstanding architect and the main “motor” of the exhibition process.
The second line, the main character becomes a man no less pleasant and less blue-eyed, is a classic detective story about a serial killer. As long as Burnham with inhuman and somewhat destructive enthusiasm builds a White City, next to his creation grows sinister black Castle-a dark hotel, which disappeared without a trace came to Chicago to work young women. There is doing his business terrible Dr. Holmes-textbook psychopath, ruthless serial killer and, according to many contemporaries, the devil himself in the flesh.
These two stories form the supporting frame of the book, around which splashing waves of turbulent and nothing like the American history of the time of the initial accumulation of capital. Grow overnight crumbling of the Corporation fortunes to cobble together and are being wasted, skyscrapers as if themselves eager for the sky, the villain (other than Dr. Holmes) is planning the murder of Chicago mayor, calling the first phones, elegant ladies die of consumption, streets clouds smog, which can’t dissipate the gas lights, and the air literally crackles from the era spill in this tension, fears and hopes. Not half a step away from the historical truth, with a tiny care in the primary sources restoring the smallest details, Larson achieves a striking effect — the past he powerfully breaks into the present, in the writer’s own expression, “flashing like a match in the dark.”
Documentary novels by Erik Larson are absolute bestsellers, and he deservedly sits on a literary Olympus near Stephen King and Joanne Rowling. I want to believe that “The Devil in the White City” will be able to break through the firewall of inexplicable reader’s indifference.