The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson (2003)

28 Nov

I had never heard about this book before, and then three separate people recommended The Devil in the White City to me in the space of two days.  I needed to see what I was missing.

Larson tirelessly researched turn-of-the-century Chicago, in this nonfiction work that simultaneously explores the path to the creation of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, as well as traces the mystery of a serial killer, H. H. Holmes, feeding on the crowds the fair attracts.

This book reads like fiction and is very engaging.  I appreciate that Larson included endnotes, with an epilogue inviting the reader to personally explore the sources. Larson alternates skilfully between the two storylines, it never feels choppy or uneven.

Larson took great pains to give the reader the true feel of Holmes’ personality.  Holmes’ most distinctive and disturbing traits were his chilling blue eyes and cool demeanor.  The description the first few times around was effective.  However, Larson repeats this description every time Holmes makes a new acquaintance, and after a while it is tiresome.

Although this is a serial killer book, it’s not frightening.  Actually, I found the storyline about the construction of the fair, the tight deadlines, and its looming failure to be very stressful, and create much more of an impression.

Larson explained how he used Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood as an inspiration for his work.  In Cold Blood is one of my favorite books.  Devil in the White City can’t stand up to the poetry of Capote’s language or the atmosphere Capote creates, but if you’re a fan of In Cold Blood, you will likely find this book enjoyable.

During and after reading Devil in the White City, I’ve been thinking about the condition of America at the time of the World’s Fair.  A fair like this simply could never happen again.  Oh, we could easily put on an enormous exposition, however, the world was a much larger place (so to speak) then.  We are no longer small town bumpkins who revel in wonder at cowboys or bellydancers.  Between National Geographic and the internet, we have access to everything.  There is nothing left to revel at anymore.


8 Responses to “The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson (2003)”

  1. Erin November 28, 2011 at 8:54 pm #

    I’m a pretty big true crime enthusiast (that sounds awful), and I have never heard of this book either. I’m adding this to my wish list immediately.

    (I still have a photo of H.H. Holmes on my desk from the Halloween decorating contest!)

    • beezuskiddo November 28, 2011 at 9:37 pm #

      Have you seen the book “Death Scenes”? It might make your brain explode.
      If you haven’t, I’ll send it to work with Sandy one day, and you can take a look at it.

      • Erin November 29, 2011 at 2:56 pm #

        Please send it with Sandy!

  2. Jill November 29, 2011 at 4:43 pm #

    tell me you’ve blown through this AND thunderstruck already. AND you have a one year old. AND a husband. AND a full time job as a lawyer. you put the rest of us to shame, girl.

    • beezuskiddo November 29, 2011 at 4:45 pm #

      I haven’t read Thunderstruck yet. And I spent Weds-Sunday reading nearly non-stop.
      Most of the normal world does things like go to the gym. I sit on my butt and read.

      • beezuskiddo November 29, 2011 at 4:46 pm #

        Also, I just have to make sure the husband and the one year old don’t stick their fingers in light sockets. I can do that while reading.


  1. Books for a Recovery « beezuskiddo - December 16, 2011

    […] also wrote about Devil in the White City recently.  I’m not nearly as emotionally invested in this book as I am No Country for Old […]

  2. Thunderstruck, Erik Larson (2007) « beezuskiddo - December 26, 2011

    […] he’s got a formula that works, and he employs it with success time and time again.  Like The Devil in the White City, in Thunderstruck, Larson juxtaposes important historical events with a grisly story of […]

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