Friday, August 28, 2015

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

Publication Date:  February 11, 2003
Publisher:  Random House
Series:  Stand Alone
Pages:  447
Genre:  Nonfiction
Synopsis:  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.

Review:  Surprisingly, I decided to review a book I was required to read for school.  Even more shocking:  I really enjoyed it.

In case you didn't know, two of my favorite things are architecture and serial killers.  I don't know how to write that in a way that doesn't sound completely psychotic.  Combine both and it is fairly impossible for me not to like it.  Add a great writer into the mix and you've got a winner.

His weakness was his belief that evil had boundaries.

The writing seriously killed me.  I don't tend to like nonfiction books.  I stick to my dragons and demons most of the time.  But the events of the Chicago World Fair and the (again) marvelous writing made me check more than once to make sure this had actually happened in real life.  Erik Larson manages to spin an entertaining as well as informational story that honestly captivated me until he very last page.  The amount of research that went into making this book is astonishing.

I'm sneaking in a complaint here (since it wouldn't be a review without one):  sometimes the book felt like two books squeezed into one.  The fair and H.H. Holmes' histories certainly intertwine, but not always, and there wasn't always a link between them.

The fair was so perfect, its grace and beauty like an assurance that for as long as it lasted nothing truly bad could happen to anyone, anywhere.

The Chicago World Fair (otherwise known as the Colombian Exposition) occurred in the late 1800s.  Against all odds, it prevailed.  It should have been impossible.  It's success is due largely to Daniel Burnham, an prodigious architect in his day. Little did he know that the fair he worked so hard to make a reality was plagued by one of America's first major serial killers:  H.H. Holmes.

The thing that got me about H.H. Holmes was how charming and kind he presented himself as.  He got away with credit scams, murders, and a mountain of lies for years.  And no one ever suspected a thing.  Some say he killed upwards of 200 people, although he only confessed to 27.  To think of all of the crimes he committed without arousing suspicion is as insane as he was.

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.

The best part is just how extraordinary the Chicago World Fair was.  The innovation, the determination, and the patriotism is awe-inspiring.  I can only regard that point in time with wonder and wish that a time machine will soon be invented so that I could visit it myself.     

The Devil in the White City is one of the only nonfiction books I have ever truly liked--dare I say that I even loved it?  The book isn't just a list of facts--it's practically a fairy tale.  Even without sorcerers and dragons, this book managed to become magical.  

4 Keys


  1. This is such a great review Erin! The Devil in the White City sounds like an intense book...and all that actually happened!?! Wow! Those quotes are gorgeous - I believe you about the awesome writing ;-D

    1. Thank you, Rebekah! :D If anything, it is INTENSE. Like I said, nonfiction isn't usually my thing, but the writing made this book. I still cannot believe it happened in real life. Anyone have a time machine?

    2. *raises hand quietly* I do! Ssshh don't tell anyone and I'll let you borrow my time machine ;-)

    3. Really?! I promise to keep it quiet, if you'll come with me back in time! ;D

  2. This review is awesome. I don't really read non fiction either, but this book actually sounds really interesting. I might check it out sometime. I hope it doesn't sound creepy but serial killers are really interesting, haha. :)

    1. Thanks, Emma! Nonfiction tends to be the bane of my existence, but this book is the exception and I highly suggest it! Also creepy, but I agree that serial killers are an intriguing topic. :D