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What I Think: Review of Erik Larson's Devil in the White City


Recently, I read Erik Larson's Devil in the White City, which intertwines two separate plot lines: one about the architects who made the 1893 Chicago's World Fair possible, and the other about "America's First Serial Killer," Dr. H. H. Holmes.

I'd first heard about H.H. Holmes when I read Caleb Carr's The Alienist, in which the narrator's grandmother is deathly afraid that Dr. Holmes will escape before he is hung and kill her. A fictional novel is an odd place to first discover a bit of American true crime, but sometimes, information comes to you in odd ways! I've never read much non-fiction (outside of the required textbooks and theory articles in school), but this book convinced me that I've left an entire genre neglected for far too long.

When I checked out Devil in the White City from the library, the librarian told me it read just like fiction, even though the book is 100% true and meticulously researched.

He wasn't kidding. I read the entire thing over just two days--I couldn't find out what happened fast enough. Larson writes in an easy, often humorous style, and thus, the book is accessible to pretty much any reader.

While I originally picked up the book because of the H.H. Holmes link, I found myself quickly becoming interested in the seemingly impossible task set before the architects of the Colombian World Fair (so named as in honor of Christopher Columbus' 500th anniversary of the discovery of the New World).

These two seemingly unrelated portions of American history are linked by their collective location--Chicago--and the time period--the 1893 Fair. Holmes actually capitalized on the overwhelming success of the fair by offering boarding house rooms for rent just a few miles from the fairgrounds, and many of his visitors didn't check out.

My complaints about this book are few. The thing that bothered me the most was the desire of the author to occasionally wax poetic on minutiae--menus of the architects' meetings, lists of materials required to complete the World Fair exhibitions, etc. While Larson was trying to show the scope of the building efforts, the inclusion of such slowed down the otherwise entertaining and compelling narrative.

Another complaint: while the book (for the most part) rotated from H.H. Holmes chapter to World Fair chapter, there were instances where there were two or three World Fair chapters back-to-back. I couldn't figure out if this was because Larson was more interested in the World Fair portion of the book, or if he didn't think he had enough material on Holmes to include an equal number of chapters on him.

My final critique? There just weren't enough pictures!

While I may sound like a child who has had to make the jump from picture books to chapter books, I am a visual learner, and found myself searching the internet as I read for a visual portrayal of a building or person being described in the text. Many non-fiction books have a section in the middle of photographs, and I believe this book would have greatly benefited by such an insert.

That being said, the documentary "H.H. Holmes: America's First Serial Killer" provided me with those visual bits of information that helped to fill the holes left from reading the book. Much of the same ground is covered as in the Holmes portions of the Devil in the White City, but hearing the information at the same time as an old photograph was being shown heightened the learning experience for me. If you have Netflix, there is an instant watch version of this film; you might be able to find a copy at your local library as well.

Definitely a must read!