The Devil in the White City
I’ve been hearing about The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson for awhile. A family member asked me if I had read it yet, my book club ladies all loved it, and now he has another bestseller out there (The Splendid and the Vile). So I thought I’d try this one. To be honest, Devil is my second Larson book; I read Dead Wake about the Lusitania a few years ago. I found that one very dry so I actually put it down before finishing it, but I hoped Devil would be different.
Sadly, I have the same comment about this book; it can get dry at times.
To summarize the plot, The Devil in the White City is a nonfiction bestseller about Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair (or Columbian Exposition, as it is officially known). It follows two storylines; the first focuses mainly on Daniel Burnham, the chief architect and “head honcho” of the Fair. The second is H.H. Holmes, a serial killer who lured his victims into the “Murder Castle” he had constructed close to the fair. Both storylines were meticulously researched and I applaud Larson for getting all these facts laid out in an easy-to-follow way. He even strives for instances of suspense, which I know is hard to achieve when telling true stories, especially ones which occurred over a century ago.
Normally I enjoy nonfiction, but this book is 643 pages long and by page 400 I was ready to put it down. I did finish, but honestly only because I had already read over half the book and I felt like I somehow owed it to myself to finish. But I do admit I was heavily skimming by that point, especially the Burnham storyline. I did enjoy the Holmes chapters more, but that is probably because his story was less detail-heavy compared to Burnham’s and focused more on his suspicious activities. Honestly, I would recommend this book to anyone who is a big nonfiction reader or loves American history, but for a more general reader like myself, I’m not sure they’d like it.
Still, I know I am in the minority with this one. Besides having quite a few people I know personally recommend it to me, I also checked Goodreads, where it currently has 540,176 ratings with a 4-star average. Over half a million people who liked the book certainly says something! I myself would give it three stars; I appreciate his research and his dedication to writing such a comprehensive book on this topic, but I just don’t think Larson’s writing style is for me.
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