Monday, March 24, 2008

The Devil in the White City

The Devil in the White City is a departure from most of the books I read, but I had read a number of excellent reviews and so was interested in finding it. First of all, it's non-fiction, using primary sources to describe the 1893 Columbian Exhibition (also called World's Fair) in Chicago. The challenges that the Fair's planners had to meet and overcome (a lot of which they put on themselves) were tremendous. Erik Larson does a fine job describing the run-up to Chicago's selection as the host city, as well as describing the nature of the city itself as it took on the challenge. But what Larson truly excels at is describing the principal people involved in the decisions and preparations by using their own words. Larson has apparently scoured letters, articles, and books by and about such people as Daniel Burnham, Louis Sullivan, and Frederick Olmsted and then used his findings to add depth to his history of the Columbian Exhibition.

That Larson is an excellent researcher is apparent; the notes section of the book is extensive. And his decision to let the words of the actual participants carry a lot of the story-telling weight is sound. Larson acts more as a bricklayer, mortaring and shoring up the foundation for the quotations he uses, and providing the connections between them. To be honest, a lot of the connective material is supposition based on his readings, but I could find nothing that seemed obviously wrong or felt like guessing. And the book is a fascinating read about personalities surrounding an important event in American history—I could barely put it down. But some of the decisions Larson made for his book just felt a little off to me, weakening my enjoyment of the book minimally.

First, there is the Devil in the title, serial killer H. H. Holmes. While Holmes lived mere blocks from the gates of the Columbian Exhibition while it was running, his story is only tangential to the larger story of the Exhibition itself. In fact, Holmes's killing spree began before the Exhibition opened and went on after it was over, and he didn't use the Exhibition as part of his modus operandi. He had no interaction with any of the principles of the Exhibition. It's important to note that Holmes's story is worth telling; he was apparently one of the first, if not the very first, serial killers in the United States. He was a psychopath and apparently extremely intelligent, especially as he describes himself in the quotes provided in Larson's book. He is a fascinating study of evil and sickness. But he has nothing to do with the main thrust of the story of the exhibition. There are far fewer chapters about Holmes than there are about the Exhibition and its builders, and just as the momentum of the main story gets going, we are interrupted with more supposition about Holmes and his activities.

The second biggest flaw is that Larson spends a great deal of time describing the enormity of the work done for the fair, but provides little detail about just how big it is. Unless you are used to thinking in such terms, knowing that the fairgrounds were a mile square means very little. Describing one of the buildings as "the largest ever attempted" means very little without numbers to back it up. And I understand not using picky details because they could easily get in the way of a narrative flow. But without numbers, please provide pictures. There are only eight illustrations in the book, and only two of those offer any real scope of just how huge and beautiful the fair turned out to be. And one of those photographs suffers from extreme foreshortening, causing the Court of Honor to appear very much smaller than it actually was. So, fascinated by what little detail I had, I started doing some research. The front page of the Illinois Institute of Technology's Web site ( gives a far better picture of just how large the fair and its buildings were. Digging further into the Web site, one can find a map of the fair with links to pictures for locations on the map ( In fact as much as I am recommending The Devil in the White City, I am also recommending the Illinois Institute of Technology Web site. I spent a couple of hours looking over the pictures and I could easily spend several more.

I thoroughly enjoyed Larson's book, flawed as it might be. Larson wisely keeps out of the way of the story he is telling, and it is much to his credit that the stories of both the Exhibition and H. H. Holmes be told. I think much more can be made of either story, and Larson has provided the perfect gateway to learning more about both.

1 comment:

  1. I had never heard of Holmes or his murders, but after reading The Devil in the White City, I wanted to find out more about Holmes and his murders. I read a few but the best and most informative was The Hunt for H. H. Holmes and Trial of America's First Serial Killer (Illustrated) available on Amazon.
    Holmes certainly seemed to be an intelligent serial killer and I wonder if he would have ever been caught but for the Pitezel insurance scam fiasco.