[Book Review] The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

8.17.2012



"In Chicago at the end of the nineteenth century 
amid the smoke of industry and the clatter of trains 
there lived two men, both handsome, both blue-eyed, 
and both unusually adept at their chosen skills."

--The first lines from Erik Larson's author note 


The Devil in the White City is a book that's been on my radar for a long time, but it just never made it to the top of my "must read" list until now. The devil in this story is a serial killer who went by the alias H.H. Holmes. The white city is the World's Fair that was built in Chicago circa 1891. It was called the White City because they painted all the buildings white. Daniel H. Burnham was the director of works. This is a completely true story, and the amount of detail that went into the research and writing of this book is impressive, to say the least.

The main story centers around the actual building of the fair and the lives of the designers and architects who were responsible for bringing to life a city within a city. The process itself of a city bidding to host the fair and then all the years of planning that went into it reminded me a lot of modern-day Olympics. The difference being, obviously, that the fair was meant to introduce new inventions (in the case of the Chicago fair this meant things like shredded wheat, a dishwasher, and lamps, among many others), whereas the Olympics is much more exclusive and solely centered around athletics. Well, that and the fair was open from May-October, something I didn't know before reading this book. 

I began Devil expecting it to be comparable to The Monster of Florence, which I read last year and is about a real-life serial killer in Florence, Italy. (This is only the second book I've read about serial killers; it's not a topic I read about all the time. You can read my review of Monster HERE.) Devil, however, was more about the fair than Holmes, which was completely fine, just not what I expected. This would be my only caution to someone looking for a page-turning psychopathic thriller in Devil. 

Interesting historical facts are abundant throughout the text, and I especially enjoyed it because it's set in Chicago. Early on there was a quote that excited me, because most people seem to not know the real story behind why Chicago is called "the Windy City."

Chicago had a hard time getting the bid to host the fair because no one thought Chicago would be up to the task. Chicagoans held the belief that "success [at the fair] would dispel at last the eastern perception that Chicago was nothing more than a greedy, hog-slaughtering backwater; failure [at the fair] would bring humiliation from which the city would not soon recover, given how heartily its leading men had boasted that Chicago would prevail. It was this big talk, not the persistent southwesterly breeze, that had prompted New York editor Charles Anderson Dana to nickname Chicago 'the Windy City.'" (Larson, 13-4)

I don't want to spoil the best invention of all (in my opinion) that came out of the fair, but let's just say that something was invented that we all know and love, and I was very excited to find out that this thing was invented in Chicago. I also didn't know it was named after the person who invented it, but I suppose I should have known that already. 

The chapters on Holmes are scattered throughout the book and are creepy in their own right. He is described as a man with a noticeable presence--an unknown quality that made people trust him and women fall in love with him. He killed nine people that we know of, though he likely killed many more. He lived in Chicago and seduced women who came to the city to see the fair before murdering them. Larson shows this evil as directly in contrast to the magic of the fair and the hope that such a beautiful display brought millions of people around the world. 

I gave Devil four stars on Goodreads and listed it as a "one-time read." This was definitely a book I would recommend both for its rich history and its climactic mixture of triumph and horror, but it's not a book I would rush to read again. The research is, as I said earlier, magnificent. It is clear Larson left no stone unturned, as evidenced by the many pages of references in the back, and I did thoroughly enjoy learning about a period in history I previously had little knowledge about. 

I do, however, have a few critiques. He (or his editor, I assume) made a few copyediting choices I wasn't a fan of, mainly the lack of commas that in some cases made the sentences hard to read. Another issue is not necessarily Larson's fault but is more just a product of the story itself. There were so many players in both the building of the fair and Holmes's story that at times it was hard to follow one from another. Also, the account of the building of the fair seemed to drag in parts; but in that case I suppose you could say Larson gave a realistic account of what the architects themselves felt about the at-times frustrating process of bringing the White City to life. Despite these minor issues, I read this book in a little over a week. The pages turned quickly, and the story was engrossing. 

To close, I'll leave you with the final lines from Erik Larson's author note, which I also used to open this review: 

"Beneath the gore and smoke and loam, 
this book is about the evanescence of life, 
and why some men choose to fill their brief allotment of time 
engaging the impossible, 
others in the manufacture of sorrow. 
In the end it is a story of the ineluctable conflict 
between good and evil, 
daylight and darkness, 
the White City and the Black."

・ DESIGNED BY ECLAIR DESIGNS