So there’s no questions about what I’m recommending here: this book is definitely not for everyone. It’s got some content that is super disturbing, and if you’re at all sensitive about reading true crime accounts? Stay away.
The book is also completely engrossing and made me wish I could have gone to the Chicago World’s Fair and seen the amazing White City that was created for it. I enjoyed the sections about the fair a lot more than the sections about the serial killer who took advantage of the fair to lure his victims to his hotel. I had to keep reminding myself that the events described really did happen, because it absolutely reads like a movie or crime fiction book – completely horrifying yet strangely fascinating as well. There really aren’t a lot of gruesome details provided, so don’t worry about that if you’re squeamish. It’s all just the idea of what this evil man was doing.
It’s been awhile since I read it, and what I read was a library copy, so I can’t check the text to see how easy it would be to skip the one storyline. My vague recollection is that they aren’t integrated, and you’d be able to fairly easily jump ahead to the next part if you did want to avoid the awful sections. (Awful for the content, not the writing. The writing is always strong.)
So. Recommended, with strong cautions.
Two men, each handsome and unusually adept at his chosen work, embodied an element of the great dynamic that characterized America’s rush toward the twentieth century. The architect was Daniel Hudson Burnham, the fair’s brilliant director of works and the builder of many of the country’s most important structures, including the Flatiron Building in New York and Union Station in Washington, D.C. The murderer was Henry H. Holmes, a young doctor who, in a malign parody of the White City, built his “World’s Fair Hotel” just west of the fairgrounds—a torture palace complete with dissection table, gas chamber, and 3,000-degree crematorium. Burnham overcame tremendous obstacles and tragedies as he organized the talents of Frederick Law Olmsted, Charles McKim, Louis Sullivan, and others to transform swampy Jackson Park into the White City, while Holmes used the attraction of the great fair and his own satanic charms to lure scores of young women to their deaths. What makes the story all the more chilling is that Holmes really lived, walking the grounds of that dream city by the lake.
The Devil in the White City draws the reader into a time of magic and majesty, made all the more appealing by a supporting cast of real-life characters, including Buffalo Bill, Theodore Dreiser, Susan B. Anthony, Thomas Edison, Archduke Francis Ferdinand, and others. In this book the smoke, romance, and mystery of the Gilded Age come alive as never before.
Erik Larson’s gifts as a storyteller are magnificently displayed in this rich narrative of the master builder, the killer, and the great fair that obsessed them both.
Larson is a prolific author, and his newest book In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin is supposed to be fantastic. The only other book of Larson’s that I’ve read was Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History, which was interesting, but not as can’t-stop-reading-this compelling as The Devil in the White City. It also wasn’t as disturbing though, and would be a better choice if you want to avoid some of the content in that one.
To see all the books featured in 31 Days of Great Nonfiction, go to the series page.
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