Review: The Devil in the White City

The Devil in the White City: A Saga of Magic and Murder at the Fair that Changed America – by Erik Larson

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Solid 4 Stars

I read this book in anticipation of discussion on the relatively new podcast – No Dumb Questions which has been awesome. NDQ recently covered Ready Player One (in depth, and did a great job, making some fantastic points) and The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson is the next book they plan to cover. I listened to the unabridged Audible version and have to say I rather enjoyed it. 

The book has 2 predominant storylines: The first deals with the 1893 World’s Fair which was held in Chicago (at the time, The World’s Columbian Exposition was considered the pre-eminent exposition in the world and was a huge deal, much more so than in the past 50 years). It was also a source of national and city pride where architecture and inventions took the main stage. There were many firsts at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair – the first Ferris Wheel, the first large-scale use of AC electricity, the first moving walkway, electric boats, the largest building in the world. The book covers much of the history of the fair and the intrigue involved in it.

The second storyline deals with America’s first serial killer H.H. Holmes (born Herman Mudgett) who was trained as a physician, but operated a “pharmacy” and owned a rather large building near the World’s Fair. The sensational murders of Jack the Ripper in London occurred just before the killing spree of Holmes and there is even some speculation (not in the book) that they are one in the same person. The in depth account of Holmes’ history and various crimes, as well as his investigation is interspaced throughout the book and is interesting in it’s own right as so many of the things he did were unheard of at the time.

While all of the events in the book occur simultaneously, the storylines don’t really intertwine otherwise. No shared characters on both storylines. Probably because so many books/movies/shows have a similar setup, but then ultimately bring the characters together to integrate the storyline, it ended up feeling a bit disjointed when they didn’t integrate. Also, though there were portions of the book which were “faster” in pace, there were also other sections where it plodded quite a bit. (Hence the 4 stars)

For all that, I still found the book worthwhile and quite interesting, mostly from a historical perspective. Definitely worth the read.

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