Book Review: The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson

The-Devil-in-the-White-City-by-Erik-Larson-Book-CoverI admit that I might be somewhat to blame for my personal dislike for Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City.  After all, I began reading it under the pretense that the book was a work of fiction loosely based on the story of a serial killer who used Chicago’s World Fair to lure unsuspecting women into his arms, and consequently, their deaths.  Had I known ahead of time that the book was purely a work of non-fiction, and that every conversation that occurred between characters was pulled directly from an existing source, I probably would have given the author a little more credit.  In all honesty, Larson does deserve some kudos for the assumedly thousands of hours of tedious and thorough research that went into this book, and the ability to organize it in a coherent way that was at its best interesting and mildly entertaining.  Furthermore, Larson perfectly captured the pre-fair dark city of Chicago, with its streets brimming with horse manure that formed a slimy wreaking sludge on days when it rained.

Unfortunately, my praise ends there.

You see, of the mindset that this was a story which mostly centered around the “Devil in the White City,” heavy emphasis on the devil, I was expecting a horrific, suspenseful, and psychologically engaging page-turner.  Instead I found myself begrudgingly plodding through pages upon unexciting pages of dry, dispassionate descriptions of the obstacles Chicago faced in building the fair.  The names of so many architects and landscapers were thrown around that I honestly couldn’t tell you more than two people that played some role in the building of the fair (even though it seemed a majority of the book was devoted to this very task).  Sometimes the “magic” of the fair seemed so disenchanting, Larson’s text seemed to read more like a book about nature (e.g., The Chicago Fair, scientific name Chicagois Fairificus, stood 500 rods tall and spanned an area of 1000 square rods. .  This life form draws its nutrients from the pocketbooks of wealthy sponsors and most promising inventions of the time, flourishes in direct sunlight, and is known to crumble in the face of straight-line winds).  Although the previous sentences were NOT actually included in Larson’s book’ they might as well have been.  In my opinion, there was far too great an emphasis on the logistics of the fair (i.e., how much will it cost? who will build what? how many days are left until it’s completion? what color shall we paint the buildings? Etc.) and not enough space devoted to encounters at the fair after its completion.  Gaining a visceral understanding of what the fair is really like is the interesting stuff that readers want to know about, and this aspect of the book seemed more or less glossed over to me.  Even when Larson did described the fair in full swing, it was from a detached and statistical standpoint (e.g., In terms of crime, there were _____ cases of robbery, _____ cases of violence, etc. )

Considering that even after finishing the book I still don’t have any better a sense of what it would have really been like to attend the fair (in terms of what sorts of encounters I might expect to have or what sorts of exhibits I might encounter), than I had before I started reading, the book could not have really done a bang up job.  The only thing I do have a clear idea of is the absolutely gargantuous magnitude of the fair in terms of how large it was and the never ending stream of resources that went into building it.

By now you might be thinking, But what about the murder part of the title?  All this silly girl has been talking about so far if the fair itself!  Believe me, I thought the very same thing while I was reading.  The title led me to believe that the serial killer Holmes would be a central part of the story.  To me, he felt like more than an afterthought than anything.  The killer’s story was told in the same removed, dry, and matter of fact tone as the parts regarding the fair.  The reader knows from the very beginning who the killer is, and I wasn’t even able to really feel sad or horrified for the victims, simply because Larson made it difficult for me to care about them.  There were never any twists or turns in this story.  In fact, I could predict what was coming next from a mile off.

I understand what Larson was attempting to do with this book: juxtapose the splendor of the fair (something so spectacular and testimonial to the accomplishments of the world and the United States) with the horror of the brutal acts of murder committed by Holmes.  This sort of side by side comparison had the potential to make Holmes seem even more grotesque and the fair (and Chicago) seem like some miraculous otherworld that even a serial killer couldn’t tarnish.  Yet, instead, the juxtaposition made each story seem duller than the last.  I found myself wanting to skim over the minute details of the fair to get to the parts with Holmes, yet I was always disappointed with the lack of suspense and brevity of his section after finishing it.

All in all, I would have much preferred Larson inventing characters to attend the fair and allowing us the experience it through their eyes instead of being tethered to historical people and only those events and conversations which can be absolutely proven.  This would have granted Larson more freedom to write about those aspects that were perhaps more interesting than the construction of the fair.  Plus, it shouldn’t have been that difficult to make a serial killer scary, but H. H. Holmes was just that – NOT scary.  Larson’s refusal to exaggerate upon the true events to give them that extra edge of suspense was ultimately to the books detriment, in my opinion.  Finally, such a fixation on the names of the time turned me off because at times it seemed as though Larson was just name dropping for no good reason.

Despite my objections to the book, this doesn’t mean that everyone will dislike it.  I would recommend it most for those who have a great interest in American History or Architecture.

Final Rating: 2 out of 5 stars.

One thought on “Book Review: The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson

  1. Eh heh heh… “The Chicago Fair, scientific name Chicagois Fairificus.” Guess I can cross this book of the list of things to read.

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