Book Reviews, Reviews

Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

★★★★★

By the description, The Devil in the White City sounds like a very interesting book. It follows two stories: the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, and Dr. H.H. Holmes – America’s first serial killer, who was living and killing in Chicago during the fair.

This is another book that I probably never would have heard of if I wasn’t in a book club. I did end up voting for it, though, because I had heard of H.H. Holmes, and was curious to read about him. The other half of the book I could have taken or left.

As it turns out, the half about Holmes is by far the weaker part of the book. As the author mentions, while Holmes may have had as many as 200 victims, only 9 have ever actually been directly attributed to him. Devil in the White City felt riddled with speculation. I say “felt,” because I listened to the audiobook. Maybe if I had read it instead, there would have been foot notes or something explaining that this wasn’t just guess work. But the way it was written, it certainly felt like it.

The half of the book covering the fair had much more detail and much less speculation, and was therefore much more interesting to me. I had no idea how much of American history intersected at the fair. And if the book didn’t also discuss Holmes, I probably never would have.

I guess that’s why the book covers both subjects. There’s very little overlap in the book between the fair and Holmes. The author attempts to sync up the events in time, but that could have just as easily been done if this book were split in two. Ultimately, the Holmes half of the book is basically just a marketing gimmick to get people to read about the Chicago World’s Fair. And it worked like gangbusters. That said, I watched a documentary about H.H. Holmes after I finished the book, hoping to find out more of his story. It turns out the documentary was pretty light on detail, too. And the big things that the film hit on were also in the book. So maybe the author wanted to write a book about the serial killer and couldn’t fill a whole book with it. If you’re interested in both of the subjects of this book, I guess I would recommend it. But if you’re only interested in one, I’d look elsewhere. There are probably lots of great books about the fair. Based on what I know of Holmes, his Wikipedia page is probably all the info you’re gonna get.

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