In a city of millions, it is possible for two very similar men to lead distinctly opposite lives. While one aspires to be the best architect America has ever seen, the other falls pray to a sadistic calling full of murder and the sick pleasure he finds in the anguish of others. Erik Larson, author of The Devil in the White City, uses the images of good and evil, Burnham and Holmes, as a doorway into the world of the chilling mysteries surrounding one man and the brilliant designs of the other. Though both resemble each other and have been immersed in the same world in Chicago, the lives they lead run far from parallel to each other. Throughout the story, numerous episodes occur that draw on the characters true nature as the story follows them going about their various endeavors in turn of the century Chicago.
Looking at Holmes past, it becomes clearer as to how the demons such as the ones he has dealt with could turn somebody into the kind of person who would go about life as he does. After enduring numerous injustices and violations as a child, Holmes now finds his outlet in the things that had caused him so much anguish and misery in his past. In the chapter The Necessary Supply, Holmes alias Mudgett is brought into a doctors office and examines a skeleton, which, in turn, brings out a newfound interest in the medical world as well as a macabre obsession with the gruesome murders he commits later in life. From this early stage which Larson has set, it becomes apparent that though the men mayb be similar in appreance and placed in similar situations with similar skill in their chosen profession,they are complete opposites and as such, it is hard to not wonder how the events that took place did take place. After giving this introduction to Holmes, a curiosity is instilled which cannot be sated until everything that can be known about his actions is known and has been seen next to the accomplishments of Burnham. Perhaps one of the most significant events is in the chapter Claustrophobia, where the unsuspecting and nave Anna, sister of Minnie, falls prey to one of Holmes' most sinister murder schemes. It seems that while any person aware of the harrowing nature of this account would be inclined to turn away, the idea to halt the schemes never crosses the mind and the need to fulfill his urge continue on and leave his legacy is instilled that much deeper in him. It is because of this distortion and lack of ethical values instilled in the man called Holmes that the story of Burnham takes flight in Devil in the White City.
From the point at which Burnham is introduced as a child, in the chapter "The Trouble is Just Begun," it seems that he is a very admirable and ambitious person and that with time he will achieve greatness through his longing for greatness. Shortly thereafter, the means by which he will become great become apparent in the form of his business partner, John Root. As the pair became enticed by the beckoning call of the sky and the loamy nature of the earth Chicago offers, the Worlds Columbian Exposition proves to be the business venture of a lifetime. Little did they know, the two had inevitably tied themselves to Holmes by taking the highest position, and thus the highest amount of dignity and respect, the fair had to offer, but making the title Burnham had chosen much more fascinating. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the story of Burnham and the Worlds Columbian Exposition is that at a time very close to when Burnham and the Eastern architects lay the foundation of what would be America's greatest fair, Holmes is busy entertaining himself with the prospect of a soon to be enhanced kiln. By placing these events so ironically close, Larson instills a desire that yearns to learn of the accomplishments that Burnham is yet to achieve and the depths that Holmes is yet to fall to. Eventually, Burnham cannot outdo his work when he commences the construction of the Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building and the Ferris wheel, at which point Burnham realizes all the greatness and recognition he will achieve with the fair. In the chapter A Gauntlet Dropped, the construction of the Liberal Arts Building was underway. The construction of this building symbolizes the vast contributions Burnham made to the fair and his country, and is the greatest example of how his childhood set him on a path to greatness. The path of Burnham runs opposite to Holmes descent into the darkest savageries and recesses of the human mind. With the construction of this incredible building, Larsons spell is cast and the two opposite men become one of the most fascinating contrasts history has come to offer.
In 1893, Chicago became home to two men that, while on the surface may have appeared similar, led completely opposite lives. For every great aspiration and skill that Burnham possesses, Holmes displays an obsession with murder and an affinity for devilish murder plots or unique schemes to fraud those around him. This striking contrast and the way the characters lives and actions are interwoven are the basis for a yearning to know more about each of these characters that anyone who comes across this book Is confronted with. Every step each man takes on his chosen path brings him closer to acheiving his dreams and goals, no matter how inspiring or frightening, and as such, they are each made more fascinating. The Devil in the White City draws on this fact, and Larson creates an open invitation to discover the Black and White cities with his intertwining tales of two men and their striking and unbelievable stories.