Book Review: The Devil in the White City

For years, I have walked past this book in the bookstore. It always sits on the Noteworthy Paperback table at Barnes and Noble and I finally decided to add it to my nook library last month. The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson is non-fiction written so compellingly that it feels like fiction.

image via bn.com

There are actually two stories told in this book about the 1893 World’s Fair held in Chicago. The first is the story of the architects and their challenges and triumphs when it came to building the fair. The second is of the entrepreneurial serial killer who used the fair to his advantage to attract young women to his hotel. I found both stories very interesting, but I was probably more intrigued by the story of Dr. H.H. Holmes, the serial killer. I wonder if we’re always generally more intrigued by the darker story. Larson did lots of research to piece together a narrative on Holmes, and it didn’t feel like there were major holes in his story. It was so creepy that, at times, I wouldn’t read it before bed.

There is more documentation on the designing and building of the fair, because, well, those people weren’t engaged in illegal activity. What’s interesting about the 1893 World’s Fair is how much influence it had on America in the turn of the century. From Shredded Wheat to the Ferris Wheel to the Roman and Greek influences in some of our historical landmarks, the Fair certainly left its mark on America. When reading about the Fair’s inception to its completion, I could only relate it to the Olympics. Cities vie to host a spectacular event, where there will be plenty of opportunities for marketing and a surge in tourism. The event will give the city a place in history, whether it’s warranted or not. And then, the city scrambles to top the city before them, to stage something grand and unforgettable. They go into debt, displace people, all to appear amazing on a world stage. It’s all very similar.

I do have one gripe about the book, though. When I say there are two stories in the book, I mean that. I was always expecting the paths of the two main characters to cross, to have some effect on each other, but there was none. Each story could have stood alone as a book, but I think perhaps Larson had a lot more information on the Fair than he did on Holmes, so he wove Holmes’ story into this one in order to break up the monotony of Fair building. Since the story is non-fiction, Larson couldn’t make Holmes meet Burnham for the heck of it, but if there was a fictional take on this book, I think that should be the first “fix.” Overall, I did enjoy the book, but was hoping for a more obvious connection in the stories.

3/5

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3 responses

  1. I read this book last year and found it very interesting. I did notice what you mention about slight connections but still found it a very absorbing book. I think in a way it was even better because it pointed up how such horrid things could go on while the acclaimed Worlds Fair was being held with no one the wiser.
    Thank you for an interesting report on this book.

  2. I read this book last year and was surprised to find there was a movie made of it (must be seriously creepy). I really enjoyed the history and the intertwining stories and like you kept waiting for them to connect in some way. Ultimately it was the historical account of the fair, and I think that just gives cudos to Larsen that it reads so much like a novel that we’re looking for that crossover.

  3. I’ve had this book for a year, and I keep meaning to read it. I love Chicago and my parents have collected World’s Fair memorabilia for years, yet I still haven’t gotten into it. Maybe your review will inspire me to read it once and for all.

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