Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City

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The Devil in the White city: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America was written by Erik Larson and falls into the genre of non-fiction literature. The book deals with two equally fascinating aspects of American history that both occurred around the same time in the late 1800s.

(Vintage Books, 2004)
(Vintage Books, 2004)

The first of the two major topics in the book is the building of the “1983 World’s Fair” in Chicago. Interestingly, not a lot of people know about the World’s Fair and yet, it remains one of the most intriguing and truly glorious accomplishments of its time. The Fair was originally meant to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the New World. However, as the ideas came and grew, the Fair became much more than that. It became an entire city, painted mostly white, occupying hundreds of acres of land, with hundreds of buildings and attractions, which attracted people from all over the world. Larson’s novel tells with excruciating detail, through obvious extensive research, everything about the Fair, including interesting tidbits such as: Walt Disney’s father working was a construction worker during the building process, the original Ferris Wheel hosted in the White City and raining down nuts and bolts on spectators that were left on top of it by the mechanics and carpenters when it went for its first spin, and the animosity, delays and sheer bad luck that almost made the Fair a failure.
The second major entity the book focuses on is that of H.H. Holmes, a man who is widely regarded as America’s first documented, and one of the most prolific, serial killers. Holmes used the influx of visitors to the Fair as an opportunity to collect victims, and built the infamous World’s Fair Hotel where many of his victims, who were mostly women attracted to Holmes by his good looks and charm, met their demise. Holmes’ hotel contained hidden chambers, soundproof rooms, furnaces, tunnels, and various other mechanisms that were to ensure the continued success of Holmes’ career as a killer.
Larson’s book, therefore, tries to tell two stories at the same time, offering up both the stories of the World’s Fair and of H.H. Holmes. Therein can be found the main fault of the book. The two stories, despite being connected by the singular event that is the Fair never really gel well together and what we end up reading are two distinctive stories told in alternating chapters. There are moments, when one is forced to wonder whether if reading all the chapters on the World’s Fair on their own and then reading all the chapters on Holmes would have made the book as interesting as it should have been.
Then there’s the matter of Larson’s style. Although he is writing of non-fictional events and people, there is a sort of “novelization” of what is being written about, which has raised the question on whether the book is more speculative than factual. Overall, the book does present two topics that should be of immense interest to anyone interested in history or serial killers, and such people will enjoy the book.