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The Devil in the White City

Erik Larson
In Print
Vintage (2003)

ChicChocMtdRifles writes:

There are very few non fiction books too boring for me to read. This is one of em. State Fair and murder don't go together well like this.

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This entry created 6 August 2012. Last revised on 5 September 2016.

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The Devil in the White City

Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair That Changed America

Rating: gold star gold star gold star gold star gold star gold star no star no star no star no star (6.12)

447 pages. Occasional B&W pictures. Two maps. Index.

This book attempts to tell, in parallel fashion, two real-life stories from 1893 Chicago - the creation of the World's Fair, and the acts of a serial killer.

The 'White City' from the title is the World's Fair of 1893, an ambitious and successful endeavor to prove that the New World could put on a fair as magnificent as the previous Parisian show. This part of the book is a story of entrepreneurs and architects, of new technologies and artistic design, and of the colorful men who made it all happen.

The 'Devil' is Dr. Holmes, a physician and businessman who - somehow always a step ahead of his creditors - builds a hotel not far from the World's Fair site... complete with secret passages and a crematorium.

The author skillfully uses both stories to tell the history of America in the 1890s, and how the country and its society were changing.

What do the two stories have in common? To my mind, surprisingly little, and this is one of the flaws of the book. The story of the World's Fair is a large and diverse story, filled with the drama of a construction deadline. The story of Dr. Holmes is related chiefly by location, and little more; further, it is a smaller story with many of the details murky or unknown. Thus, I found as the author switched between the twin stories, the Holmes part felt more and more like dull filler material. (The author makes the Fair interesting, but does less well with the subject of serial murder.)

The second major flaw with the book is that it is impossible to tell the story of the World's Fair (most of which is a tale about architecture) without pictures - and the ones in this book are too few and too small.

Wargamers seeking a feel for 1890s America can learn much from this novel. Dr. Holmes might be the inspiration for a Victorian villain, although his real-life exploits (while macabre) seem ill-suited for a gaming scenario.

I had great expectations for this book, but found it uneven and hard to finish.

Reviewed by Personal logo Editor in Chief Bill The Editor of TMP Fezian.