Cannonball 15: The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I’ve never been to Chicago.

I’ve heard so much about it: its museums, its history, and especially the food. I’ve always wanted to go.

After reading Erik Larson’s book about the 1893 World’s Fair, my interest in Chicago’s history is slowly gaining on my obsession with the food scene there.

Larson’s book explores the events surrounding 1893’s World’s Columbian Exposition. The author fastidiously chronicles architect Daniel Burnham’s arduous task of creating the White City: a confluence of the day’s finest architecture, art, culture, and innovations — the best America (and the world) had to offer all in one convenient location.

He also guides the reader down a twisted path branching off from the main road: how serial killer H.H. Holmes (the eponymous “Devil” of the book) capitalized on the World’s Fair by luring victims to his infamous “Murder Castle” with low rates and his charismatic charm.

The book is nothing if not fascinating — Larson’s subject matter serves him well here. The obstacles Burnham and his colleagues had to surmount in order to make this Fair happen were staggering. The inventions that debuted at the Fair are fascinating (e.g. the Ferris Wheel. And did you know that the US runs on alternating current because Westinghouse submitted a lower bid to power the Fair based on AC? So interesting).

And the lurid details of Holmes’ escapades are gripping as well. I have a morbid fascination with serial killers (what drives someone to repeatedly commit the most heinous act possible?), and Larson’s account of Holmes’ “work” did not disappoint.

However, the book did suffer from the constant change of pace as Larson switched from story to story. Add in a tertiary subplot (the assassination of Mayor Carter Harrison) and you’ve got a trifecta of interesting storylines that have little in common aside from their setting.

The Devil in the White City was an ambitious project for any author to tackle. Larson did the best with his source material, but I can’t help but to wish that he’d decided to write three books instead of one.

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3 Comments »

  1. jane Said:

    totally agree w/ your review. you should definitely visit Chi-town sometime!!!

  2. Megs Said:

    I recently reviewed this book–I agree that the pacing does seem to be a little off between plotlines, but I also thought it heightened the expectations between the parallel stories. These two very different, very DRIVEN men working to achieve their own respective ends…it’s a little bit of a character study of what people do with the gifts they have.

    • I agree that they were both very driven — and to very different ends, for sure. My biggest problems with putting the two stories in the same book:

      1. They were both very interesting stories, but I thought that using the World’s Fair to bind the two was too tenuous a tie. There’s never even any insight into how Burnham felt about Holmes’ murders being hidden and possibly even made easier by the events of the World’s Fair.
      2. I thought the title was a little misleading, too. I expected the whole book to be about Holmes, so when Burnham’s story ended up not being directly related, I felt unsatisfied.
      3. These two aren’t the only random stories. I kind of felt like Larson was throwing in every interesting factoid about the World’s Fair. Granted, they were all fascinating, but, for me, the randomness jarred me and prevented me from being totally wrapped up in the book.

      I thought it was a very good book overall, and those are really just nitpicks. And, by the way, I just read your review. 🙂 While we may not see eye to eye about the way Larson went about telling this story, we are in perfect agreement as to how fascinating these events were. I totally need to visit Chicago, like, NOW. 🙂

      Thanks for your comment! READERS, UNITE!!


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