Book Review: The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

I picked this book up during a 2007 visit to Chicago with the hubs and his family. Interestingly, Chicago was in the midst of bidding for the Olympics during 2007 and the book opens with Chicago bidding to be the site of the World’s Fair in the late 19th century. To sum things up quickly for those who will stop reading at the end of this paragraph anyway – I wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone who is even slightly interested in American history.

Larson recreates a world where light and dark collide. Chicago during the 1890s was dirty, the stench of slaughter permeated the air, and the water was barely drinkable. In the middle of this ‘black city’, rose the pristinely white world of David Burnham’s World’s Fair. We follow Burnham and his fellow architects, landscape architects, and other visionaries as they strive to build something beautiful – something that will incite a strong sense of patriotism during the chaos of a crumbling economy, the rise of labor unions, and corrupt politicians. But as we’ve already discovered light can only come out of darkness. Foiled against our hero Burnham, Dr. H.H. Holmes calmly makes colleagues, wives, and children young and old disappear – claiming somewhere between 9 and 200+ victims and the title of America’s first serial killer. This is history you don’t want to miss!!

While the story is fascinating, the beginning does start a bit slow. The chapters are fairly short which always helps move the narrative along a bit quicker. The chapters also alternate between tales of Burnham and Holmes – so you never get too bored with one character before being thrown back to the other – a brilliant bit of novel design to keep interest peaked. One fault I found was the editing. For some reason, commas are sorely neglected, often leaving me to re-read sentences a couple of times for clarity – particularly after a prepositional phrase (I am a total grammar geek).

All in all, Larson has created a wonderful tale of murder, magic, and the macabre with just the right mixture of storytelling and truth.

Annoying star rating: 4/5

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