The Devil in the White City book review
“Murder, magic, and madness at the fair that changed America.” That is the slogan on the cover of this outstanding piece of historical non-fiction.
This New York Times quote explains it well, “A dynamic, enveloping book…Relentlessly fuses history and entertainment to give this nonfiction book the dramatic effect of a novel…It doesn’t hurt that this truth is stranger than fiction.”
The “Devil” refereed to in the title is Dr. H. H. Holmes, a serial killer active in America in the late 1800’s. Holmes used Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair, aka the White City, to lure young women into his life whom he charmed, often building long-term romantic relationships with, then murdered. Not only did Holmes use his charming persuasion, and vicious cunning to murder quietly, he also used it to build a small empire, with a small fortune. His story is certainly intriguing, but its only a small force in the attraction of this entire book.
Although the two men never met, Holmes shares the spotlight of the novel with a great architect of the time, Daniel H. Burnham. Burnham was the lead designer of the World’s Fair, an event “largely fallen from modern recollection but that in its time was considered to possess a transformative power nearly equal to that of the Civil War.”
Larson paints a vivid picture of the World’s Fair from more viewpoints than you’d perceive possible. From the main attractions to the (many) near downfalls, you will close this book knowing the World’s Fair of 1893 was one of the most spectacular events in history.
While so many historical nonfiction authors are not, Erik Larson is a story teller. The story drops teasers like a suspense novel, builds character like literary fiction, and weaves multiple story lines better than most novels in any genre. Quotes are woven in with ease, building the plot and strengthening historical accuracy with each appearance.
The Devil in the White City is by far the best piece of historical nonfiction I have ever read. I recommend it to anyone who 1) loves history, 2) loves a murder mystery, 3) is interested in American history or the history of Chicago, 4) is fascinated by architecture, 5) who knows nothings about the World’s Fair, and 6) anyone who simply loves a good story.