Book Review: The Devil in the White City

June 21, 2013

I don’t usually do book reviews here, as I often have books to review for LJ.  However, I was writing one for work, and really enjoyed this book, so I thought I would share!  I highly recommend it.  Being a new Chicagoan, it was great to read so much about the history of my new city.

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erick Larson
Book Review Non-Fiction

Did you know that the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 (or World’s Columbian Exposition) introduced us to the first Ferris Wheel, the first mass use of A/C electricity, first use of spray paint, and the first zipper?  It also became the “birthplace” of America’s first serial killer, H.H. Holmes.  Erik Larson gives us a riveting glimpse of this time in the true story of the Devil (H.H. Holmes) and the White City (The Fair.)

Chicago in the last decade before the 20th century was a place of rapid change and rough living.  Murder was more prevalent than it is today, and the atmosphere of the city varied from the excitement of a new form of architecture known as skyscrapers, to the putrid smells of death at the Stockyards.  Well-researched, yet reading like a novel, Larson describes the struggle to bring the Fair to Chicago.  Stakes were high: the previous Fair had introduced the Eiffel Tower to the world. Chicago won the privilege, beating out New York, Washington, D.C., and St. Louis. Architects Burnham and Root of Chicago won the contract for design. However, creating the vision of a White City proved difficult and nearly impossible on the shores of Lake Michigan.

Juxtaposing this endeavor with machinations of country’s first know serial killer show the Jekyll/Hyde personality of the Chicago area at this time.  Although only four murders were linked definitively to Holmes, it is possible that dozens of missing persons during this time could be his victims. Holmes’ methods, mindset, and sufferings of some of his victims are described in detail, providing additional tension to this historical narrative.

Even if you are not a non-fiction reader, this book (a finalist for the National Book Award) will grip you and not let you go until the last page. You will never look at Chicago the same way again.


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