The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson: Book Review

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Devil in the White City

4 Stars

Chicago wins a bid to be the host of the World’s Fair in 1892, the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of America. The city’s top architects immediately swing into gear to make this a fair to remember. Paris had hosted a world’s fair a few years earlier and everyone said that it couldn’t be beaten. So of course Chicago feels like they have to “out-Eiffel Eiffel.” At the same time, charming psychopath Dr. H.H. Holmes sets up a pharmacy/hotel/restaurant in the city. Women and children who enter his sphere are never heard from again. The Devil in the White City weaves these stories together.

I’m not a non-fiction reader, but I liked this book. It was interesting to see what Burnham, the lead architect for the fair, went through to get everything together on time. I also enjoyed reading about the odd bits of trivia associated with the fair. For example, did you know that the Pledge of Allegiance was written for the dedication of the fair? It was also fun to see how everyone who was anyone knew each other in a much smaller America back then. The book is full of names that I recognize and I’m not a history buff.

There were some things that I wasn’t crazy about though. The serial killer stuff could have been better. It was never suspenseful. It was just, “Well, he made this girl fall in love with him, and then she disappeared, but they think they found her footprint on the inside of his crematorium.” I know it’s non-fiction and the author was trying to stick to facts, but I kind of like some sensationalism. It could have been played up more for my taste. The very end of the World’s Fair started dragging for me. We had lost the thread of the serial killer and were focused entirely on the fair. I think the alternating chapters about the fair and Dr. Holmes helped keeped my interest. When that stopped, my interest flagged. But then it picked back up again when the focus shifted almost entirely to Dr. Holmes. And, finally, I would have liked more pictures. Maybe there weren’t more available, but if there were, I would have liked to have seen them. I would prefer to see the picture showing me how big the main building of the fair was rather than just giving me raw numbers.

Overall, though, I enjoyed this much more than I thought I would. I wouldn’t mind reading more by this author.

Reviewed November 17, 2008

Read an excerpt.

Find author Erik Larson on his website, his blog, and Facebook.


Friday Flashback Reviews are a weekly feature here on The Introverted Reader. These are old reviews I wrote on GoodReads. Thanks to Angieville and her Retro Friday Reviews for the inspiration and encouragement!

I have an affiliate relationship with Malaprop’s, my local independent bookstore located in beautiful downtown Asheville, NC; and Better World Books. I will receive a small commission at no cost to you if you purchase books through links on my site.

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  1. Recently read this one as well. I thought the parts about the choice of architects were the more slow-going and was always hoping for a bit more of Holmes (was also expect a much stronger link between he two stories).

    What I really liked were the micro-stories of the Fair, like the Ferris Wheel and the woman who took out her skirt to calm another passenger, the adventures of Buffalo Bill, and the painter that was constantly being disturbed.

  2. You may already have seen this article, but I was wandering the author's website and found his explanation for the lack of pictures:

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