Review–The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson


The Devil in the White City

by Erik Larson

Summary: Author Erik Larson imbues the incredible events surrounding the 1893 Chicago World's Fair with such drama that readers may find themselves checking the book's categorization to be sure that 'The Devil in the White City' is not, in fact, a highly imaginative novel. Larson tells the stories of two men: Daniel H. Burnham, the architect responsible for the fair's construction, and H.H. Holmes, a serial killer masquerading as a charming doctor.
Burnham's challenge was immense. In a short period of time, he was forced to overcome the death of his partner and numerous other obstacles to construct the famous "White City" around which the fair was built. His efforts to complete the project, and the fair's incredible success, are skillfully related along with entertaining appearances by such notables as Buffalo Bill Cody, Susan B. Anthony, Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison.
The activities of the sinister Dr. Holmes, who is believed to be responsible for scores of murders around the time of the fair, are equally remarkable. He devised and erected the World's Fair Hotel, complete with crematorium and gas chamber, near the fairgrounds and used the event as well as his own charismatic personality to lure victims.

Source: I purchased a paperback from a used book store.

Add to Goodreads


I typically do not read much nonfiction unless it is about a subject I care deeply about. I typically avoid crime nonfiction because True Crime always reads like a lifetime movie to me, but I do make exceptions for some books, like Helter Skelter. I was intrigued by this book, especially after discovering that Leonardo DiCaprio will be playing the infamous H.H. Holmes in the upcoming movie. I had been eyeing it the past few times I’ve been book shopping, but I think that’s what led me to finally pick it up. I kept putting it down after realizing it wasn’t just based on a true story, it was completely nonfiction.

The Devil in the White City takes place in Chicago during the creation of the World’s Fair at the end of the 1800s. H.H. Holmes took up residence and even had a hotel during that time period and was thought to have killed a lot of people, but he also murdered other people in other cities he visited or stayed for any length of time.

The Devil in the White City is almost two separate stories. The first would be about Daniel Burnham, the World’s Fair, the architecture and history of how that fair came about what sort of conflicts stood in the way. It is about Chicago’s fight to be included and to stand out after the U.S. realized it needed to make it’s mark on the world and not be outdone by the building of the Eiffel tower. The world’s fair changed the course of history in ways I had not thought about, such as the type of the electricity chosen (mostly due to the fact that Telsa wasn’t charging near as much as Edison), that ended up being the type we continue to use in our homes to date.

The second story was about the serial killer, H.H. Holmes. From his beginnings to his time in Chicago, the book explored his character and the personality he had that charmed the pants off of just about everybody and led to him being able to get away with murder. Because of the pressure of the World’s Fair, Chicago was more distracted than ever, with tons of visitors coming in and out, during a time when the world didn’t keep track of it’s citizens the way it does today. Those things also made it easier for Holmes to get away with murdering dozens, if not hundreds of people.

Because of that connection, I can see why the author chose to lay out his book the way he did and to include both stories. However, they fail to really come together in a nice way. I felt like I was reading two books about two very different types of things. The disappointing part is that the good stuff, the stuff about Holmes, takes up the end of the book almost entirely, but it seems as if a lot of readers who were more interested in Holmes couldn’t make it that far. I feel like the author made us wait to really give us the dirt and the violence and kind of glossed over the small disappearances at the beginning and spent more time on things like steel, trees, and what the next big thing to be built would be.

If you can make it to the end, it’s worth it. I feel much more satisfied after finishing than I did through the entire first half of the book. The author does not forget about Holmes and does end up giving up real closure and spends time on his character, it just takes him quite some time. And even though some parts of the architecture battle bored me, I feel like it was pretty interesting now that it’s all over.

The Devil in the White City will make a really good movie because seeing the fair come together will be awesome. It was just a little tedious to read about. And I think Holmes will seem even more sinister if the movie does the same back and forth from him being charming and then killing someone and then going back to the building of the fair. I think the fast paced nature of the movie will turn out much better than it ended up being in the book.

I do recommend reading this. I knew nothing about Holmes or the World’s Fair, so I feel like I learned a lot about how that time period impacted our country and how easy it was for a charming person to get away with just about anything. He was certainly a psychopath in a society not used to dealing with one or knowing to be cautious. It was all pretty fascinating.


Labels: , , ,