Review: The Devil in the White City

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

As I was wading through blogs to get my Book Blogger Appreciation Week ballot in, I found a glowing review for Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City. It sounded familiar, and I tried to remember where I’d heard of it. It turns out that it’s the favorite book of parents of a friend of mine, who had finally gotten around to reading herself. (She loved it.) I always need nonfiction to break up my increasingly steady consumption of fantasy, and so I put The Devil in the White City on hold.

The Devil in the White City concerns the Chicago’s World Fair of 1893, especially the Herculean efforts and tragedies it took to produce “The White City”, as the fair was nicknamed, spearheaded by Chicago architect Daniel Hudson Burnham. But at the same time, Chicago played host to a disarmingly charismatic serial killer who preyed on young women and children, Dr. Henry H. Holmes, providing a stark contrast between the glimmering ideal of The White City and the filthy reality of 1890s Chicago.

While I knew that The Devil in the White City tried to be engaging by adopting some novelistic traits, I wasn’t prepared for how well it succeeded. While I initially felt that the build-up to the fair was a little slow, I later realized that it was necessary to make the success of the fair feel hard-earned, in the face of differing architects, deaths, and the weather trying to sabotage the fair whenever it got the chance. It also makes the effervescence of the six month long fair all that more sorrowful towards the end. In any case, whenever it might lag, there’s always a creepy chapter about Holmes to pick it right up. Larson also plays up the contrast between The White City and actual Chicago to great effect; the architects do their best to keep the White City clean, while Chicago is so filthy animal corpses lie in the street and a chance rain can upset the sewage system. This is utilized more towards the end, but when it is, it works wonderfully.

The extent of my knowledge about the Gilded Age previous to reading The Devil in the White City was watching Titanic, I have to admit, so it’s fascinating to see what could be construed as the pinnacle of such a fleeting age, as Victorian social mores head into the twentieth century. Larson takes great care to point out that city life offered more freedom and opportunity for women than rural life, usually when he’s discussing how women fell victim to Holmes’ terrifying charm. I also liked the glimpse into the utter excess of life during that time period, especially contrasted against the burgeoning unions and a tanking economy. Nothing quite says unemployed masses like the groan inducing menus Larson includes every so often. But the star is really the Fair; many inventions we take for granted were first showed there. I especially loved the story of the Ferris Wheel; it was so cleverly designed that people thought it was unsafe, as it looked too delicate. The stereotypical Arabian musical riff (you know, the snake charmer one) was actually invented by one of the architects to accompany the belly dancers who performed at the Fair. Shredded Wheat was first shown at the Fair, and predicted to be a flop. The list goes on and on. Once we get to the Fair, it’s fascinating. It doesn’t hurt that Holmes’ criminal life picks up speed at the same time.

The way Larson uses his research to bring these people to life from across time is quite remarkable; he quotes extensively from letters and affidavits to keep things from getting too dry, which I quite liked. The Gilded Age was a time brimming with correspondence, and even Holmes’ secretive life is revealed through a memoir protesting his innocence and the letters of his victims and their families. Most heartbreaking are the letters of the three children he killed while in his care, who gave him letters to send to their mother. Larson laments that a judge didn’t allow evidence of all of Holmes’ crimes towards the end, robbing history of all that testimony. It’s all deftly done, and I think it’s a real example of how historical nonfiction can make the past come alive.

My only problem with The Devil in the White City is that the two stories, that of the fair and that of Holmes, never really connect. Obviously, Holmes takes advantage of the World’s Fair to collect victims, but you can read each story independent of each other and get the same thing out of it. It was nice to have a good bit of true crime to break up the squabbling architects, but I think Larson could have done that equally well with Prendergast, a man who commits a murder that derails the fair entirely. It’s an interesting juxtaposition, to be sure, but I feel it’s an unnecessary one. I was also a bit put off by how Larson tried to composite Holmes’ character and motivations from the traditional psychopathic template. He does his best to try and not put words into anyone else’s mouth, but often does so with Holmes, claiming that childhood events recorded in his, to be fair, mostly fictional memoir occurred otherwise. It’s a definite misstep.

Bottom line: While I’m still not sure what the two stories honestly have to do with each other, The Devil in the White City is a fascinating look at Gilded Age Chicago, the World’s Fair, and a scarily charming serial killer. While Larson oversteps in reconstructing Holmes’ character and motives, he succeeds in bringing a rarefied piece of history to life.

I rented this book from the public library.

17 thoughts on “Review: The Devil in the White City

  1. It’s too bad that the two stories never really come together, but at least it sounds like they’re both interesting! It’s also too bad about the speculative psychological approach :\

    Anyway, funnily enough I was thinking about how much I want to read this book just yesterday. I find this time period fascinating too, and I’m sure I’ll love it.

  2. I have this. I had heard so many things about it, and I kept on not reading it, so I decided I’d buy it (for cheap, at a book sale), and then it’d be on my shelves and I’d have to read it. I don’t know why I still haven’t!

  3. Glad you enjoyed the book — this is a favorite of mine. I had no problem with the juxtaposition of the two stories, although I know others who found Holmes’ story off-putting. I really liked how much American trivia Larson threw into the book.
    Have you been to Chicago before? If not, I’m sure you’ll appreciate it even more after reading this book. You can still see Burnham’s architecture downtown, and you can see the old World’s Fair site at Jackson Park and Midway Plaisance.

  4. This is yet another book that has been sitting on my shelf waiting to be read for much too long. Sounds like I shouldn’t put it off too much longer!

  5. Chicago is fantastic, and its architecture is stunning. I always squee inside when I connect a piece of architecture from the book with the real live actual structure.

    I was under the impression that the two stories are connected due to the incredible charisma and power of Daniel Burnham and Henry Holmes. Kind of a two diverging paths, if you will, between two magnetic and difficult men. Of course, I haven’t read the book in a while, so I don’t recall if the idea succeeded, but what have you.

  6. As a native Chicagoan, I put off reading this book way, way longer than I should have, but when I did, I really liked it. I totally agree with you on all counts… especially the one about the two stories not really connecting the way I was expecting them to.

  7. Pingback: 2011: #24 – The Devil in the White City (Erik Larson) | Confessions of a Bibliophile

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