Book Review: The Devil in the White City

Books overwhelm me. I love reading, and I’ll pick up the classics, no problem. Last year I read The Count of Monte Cristo and Jane Eyre for the first time. But contemporary works? Where do you begin? How do you even know what you like and that it won’t end up being, like, a cat mystery?

A friend of mine bought me a book that she found through a Reddit book club. The book involves architecture – not just architecture, but the architectural achievement of the turn of the century: The Chicago’s World Fair. An event which I’ve always wanted to know more about, but never knew where to start. This is the very true story of the architects who built the White City. And, of a serial killer who lived nearby.

Larson writes an incredible account of the events surrounding Chicago at the turn of the century. He researched and pinpointed so many tiny, minute details and facts to weave an incredible story which reads like fiction though the accounts are entirely true. While architect Burnham struggles with the absolute impossibility of building the 1893 Columbian Exposition to top Paris’ Exposition Universelle, young girls are being wooed and murdered by the strange serial killer and con artist H. H. Holmes. He would be later known as America’s first serial killer.

Now, there are plenty of 1-star reviews on this book on Amazon, and I do understand that. The architecture bits can be almost painfully slow – yet, to me, this feels like it perfectly reflects how Burnham feels. Despite the time flying by, the fair is creeping together, and it hurts. It hurts to watch and it is stressful to read. As storms destroy buildings, workers strike, and committees argue, you hurt for Burnham and you feel his worry and his pain. I must admit, however, that architecture and buildings hold a special place in my heart and the entire process fascinates me, perhaps more than others.

In addition, reviewers feel that the two stories never collide. They’re waiting for a huge reveal of when Burnham and Holmes come together. It doesn’t happen. However, what I think these readers are missing is the fact that Holmes could not have done what he did in any other place at any other time. It had to be the World’s Fair, it had to be the 1890’s, and it had to be Chicago. A city where hundreds went missing, where women went and never came home, and when he could still swindle people for money and they would take your word that you’d pay them back.

You see, Holmes was smart. He was terrifyingly, disgustingly smart. He is one of the first documented serial killers, and estimates say he could have killed upwards of 200, though he confessed to 27. The book doesn’t elaborate or entitle him to more credit than is due; rather, we are shown very specific cases where, historically, it is likely he murdered these people.

While he was smart, though, he made mistakes. He was cocky. He thought he could always make a way out and, often, he did. Again, if he were in any city other than this dark, dark city at this time when hundreds of thousands were moving in and out, he probably wouldn’t have continued as long as he did.

Unlike most readers, though, Holmes’ story entranced me less than that of this glorious thing which was the Fair. This incredible gathering of invention which either brought together some of the most creative minds of the time or which inspired the next generation of them. Larson sprinkles little tidbits which make you realize how important this fair is. On this note, I’ll just share one of my favorite lines:

“In all, the workforce in the park numbered four thousand. The ranks included a carpenter and furniture-maker named Elias Disney, who in coming years would tell many stories about the construction of this magical realm beside the lake. His son Walt would take note.”

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4 thoughts on “Book Review: The Devil in the White City

  1. alundeberg says:

    I loved this book, and I think it’s one of Larson’s best. I learned so much. His “In The Garden Of The Beasts” is pretty good, too, but not as good. I was fortunate enough to see Larson speak last year. He’s very down to earth and funny.

    • ambiewhoa says:

      I’m really looking forward to reading more by him. As a kid I always read whatever historical fiction I could get a hold of, and it was difficult to remember that this was nonfiction at times. I’ll have to see what my local library has!

      • alundeberg says:

        One of the funniest moments of his talk was when a woman asked, “When do you know the difference between writing fiction and nonfiction?” The audience inwardly groaned, but he was good and said, “Well, when I start making stuff up!”. If you’re interested in weather and storms, his “Isaac’s Storm” is a good read, too.

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