The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
Published by Vintage Books on February 10, 2004
Genre(s): nonfiction, true crime
Format & Pages: paperback, 447
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Bringing Chicago circa 1893 to vivid life. A book that intertwines the true tale of two men – the brilliant architect behind the legendary 1893 World’s Fair, striving to secure America’s place in the world: and the cunning serial killer who used the fair to lure his victims to their death.
The Devil in the White City was a departure from my usual reading habits. While I do read a smattering of nonfiction amidst all the novels that draw my attention, it tends to be for a specific purpose to gain knowledge in a particular area that interests me at that moment. In this case, I had heard of this book, thought it sounded somewhat interesting, and promptly forgot about it. Then, when my extrovert of a husband was making small talk with one of his customers, he mentioned how I love to read and review books, and she recommended this book so highly she went home to get her copy to lend to me. At that point, I couldn’t very well pass this up!
“The prolonging of a man’s life doesn’t interest me when he’s done his work and done it pretty well.”
This work of narrative nonfiction weaves the story of the construction, duration, and closure of the 1893 World’s Fair with one of the first documented serial killers. Or at least, that’s what it seeks to do. While I found both strands of the story to be intriguing, they didn’t quite pull together for a cohesive narrative. Chapters from each strand were woven in chronologically, which I did appreciate, but the connection of the two fell a bit flat for me. Instead, this read as two parallel storylines that only intersected in a few places.
Larson’s research for this book was clearly painstakingly thorough, with over 30 pages of notes and sources. In addition, he was able to take all the information he found and pull it together in a narrative that reads more like a novel than a history book. I admit the middle of this lagged for me, as it began to get bogged down in an overwhelming amount of detail about not only the buildings but the architects and other people involved in building the fair. Even with my particular interest in architecture, it just got to be too much information all at once. But once this section passed, my interest piqued again and the last quarter of the book passed fairly quickly.
Ultimately, I enjoyed learning about this piece of history in this way. Did I want more from it? Yes. Would I ever read it again? Probably not. But I am now interested in reading Larson’s other works, and also branching out to other narrative nonfiction as well. I would recommend this for anyone who prefers to learn their history through story.