The Devil in the White City

I think the first time I heard about this book was when my wonderful Greek Myth teacher mentioned it one day in class.  So when I saw the book while wandering around Barnes & Noble a while ago, I decided to buy it.  Along with having it mentioned by a teacher who’s opinion I highly respect with regards to books (I’ve read several other books on her recommendations and enjoyed them all), the title of the book is something that is definitely going to get you to at least look at it.  On with the review.

Book Stats

390 pages (after that there were another 50 pages of notes and indexes)

Non-Fiction

Enjoyment

The way the book is described by the blurb on the back cover is as a story that revolves around the story of two very different men who lived during a seminal time in the history of Chicago and this country as a whole.  The two people who form the basis of this book are Daniel Burnham, who was one of the central architects of the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893, and H. H. Holmes, one of the first and most notorious serial killers in American history.

While that’s how the book is sold, upon reading it I saw it as coming across a little differently.  Most of the book focused on Burnham and the World’s Fair.  Strewn in throughout the book are mentions of Holmes and his actions, in large part because he was living in Chicago during the time of the World’s Fair.  Ultimately though, Holmes was active before, during, and after the World’s Fair.  Here’s what I think really happened when Larson was writing this book.  He was interested in writing about the World’s Fair – and justifiably so, there was a lot of interesting information in the book about the World’s Fair – but he needed something to help sell the book.  During the course of his research he found out about Holmes, and decided to include information about him in the book.

So really, the two people whose stories form the basis for this novel come across more as a marketing decision than anything else.  A book about the World’s Fair could be interesting, but it’s not going to sell as much as a book about a serial killer.  Whatever your thoughts about what this means about our society, the truth is that violence sells more than engineering, architecture, and landscaping.

So now that we have my thoughts on how the book came to be in its current form, lets talk about how the book works out.  There is a lot of good information in the book, and Larson works hard to craft an interesting story, but it feels like too much of a train wreck for me.  The title of a book is the first promise that the author makes to the readers, and after finishing the book, I feel lied to.  The decision to focus more on Holmes for the marketing worked well enough to get me to buy the book, but it wasn’t enough to keep me thrilled for the duration of the book.

In the end, this was a very well written book about the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893.  But if you’re looking into this book for information about Holmes, I’m sure there are other books that focus much more on his story rather than other events of the time he was living.

Overall Grade

A well written book, but it wasn’t the book I wanted to read.  If you’re interested in architectural and engineering history this would be an interesting book, if you’re interested in the life of one of America’s first serial killers, you can probably look elsewhere.

5/10

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5 Comments

  1. A well-written review. I’ll look out for the book.

    Reply
  2. I actually liked this one, but I’m a history nerd and enjoyed all of the little facts.

    Reply
    • It was very well written, it just wasn’t the book I was expecting. I’m a psych nerd and more interested in strange personalities, and Holmes definitely fits the bill for having one of those.

      Reply
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