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Book Review: The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

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The Devil in the White City is a book that my stepfather recommended to me, and my stepfather is someone who reads Jimmy Buffett books, so I did not have high hopes. Yet this is more a disappointment than it is a bad book. It had the potential to be an excellent one, but falls short.

I have no choice but to give it an A plus when it comes to thoroughness and meticulous detail. Ever want to know every little thing that went into the construction of the 1893 World’s Fair? If so, this is the book for you. But I also must note that it is this very quality — that is, excessive detail, that makes this book such a drag to read.

The Devil in the White City chronicles the lives of two men. The first is Daniel H. Burnham, the architectural mind behind the fair’s construction. The second is H.H. Holmes (his birth name was Herman Webster Mudgett), the notorious killer who built what came to be called “The Castle” — a creepy house in Chicago where Holmes tortured and murdered up to 50 people (at least). Larson interweaves these two stories, where as he states himself in his opening note titled “Evils Imminent”:

Beneath the gore and smoke and loam, this book is about the evanescence of life, and why some men choose to fill their brief allotment of time engaging the impossible, others in the manufacture of sorrow. In the end it is a story of the ineluctable conflict between good and evil, daylight and darkness, the White City and the Black.

Clichés aside, the author’s intention is not a bad one, though the work ultimately suffers on account of Larson’s storytelling, or as one could argue, lack there of. Part of the problem is that the story of the architect is the far more interesting and superior one, though readers aren’t likely to know it, because it is in those sections where Larson drowns the reader with uninteresting and irrelevant detail, such as menu items.

Detail can be great if used well. Betty Smith’s brilliant novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn would not be such were it not for Smith’s ability to recount the detail of her Brooklyn childhood in the meticulous way she does. The difference, however, is that Larson’s prose is straightforward and is virtually void of any poetry. Ultimately readers are given tons of facts to digest and little on character development.

In contrast, the story of the killer is obviously there for marketing reasons. Were it not for the promise of a “nail biting” read, this book would not have been published by a major press, and the story on the architect alone would have likely gone to a university publisher. Ironically, the parts that involve the killer are a snooze, for all one need do is watch a documentary on the life of H.H. Holmes, and there isn’t anything new that Larson is going to tell you. Why is this? Again, it’s because his storytelling technique is very straightforward and virtually lacking in any poetry.

To be fair, this book is a work of non-fiction, and so there are multiple ways in which one can review this. If I were to focus on the research and detail, this book excels greatly. Yet as a work of literary non-fiction on par with Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood? Not even close. For one, Capote had a great insight into not only character development, but his prose is poetic and lingering. One can read In Cold Blood and recall phrases afterwards, where as such is not the case with Larson’s book. There really isn’t any connection at all between Daniel H. Burnham and H.H. Holmes, save for the circumstantial. (Some of the attendees of the World’s Fair happened to be lured into Holmes’ torture chamber).

Ultimately, neither the architect nor the killer are presented as very interesting characters. The parts on the killer just read as filler between those sections larded in such intimate detail. So when it came time for me to write this review, I was “torn” (bad pun, I realize, since Holmes had a habit of tying his victims up and trying to physically stretch them till their spines split) in just how to rate this book. As a work of research it is very well done, that is, assuming it is all correct.

Yet as a literary read? The writing should have been tightened, made less pedestrian, and just overall more oomph added. So because this book remains a National Book Award Finalist, and thus marketed as artistic non-fiction, I have to give it a marginal thumbs down because artistically it’s just not terribly compelling. If you’re reading this and interested in the life of H.H. Holmes, I recommend watching this documentary film I found on Google Video. There isn’t anything significant in Larson’s book that you can’t find in the documentary. But if knowing everything about the World’s Fair has always been your dream, then Larson is your man.

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About Jessica Schneider

  • micki wolter

    Just wondering whether Ms Schneider has actually read any of Mr. Buffett’s engaging books.

    If not, she might be surprised. She might even be inspired to withdraw her gratuitous slap in this review.

    If she didnt do so, I would be very wary of her literary opinions.

    Hope this isnt considered a ‘personal attack’…it isnt meant to be.

  • Matt

    [personal attack deleted] the killer is much more interesting than the boring fair

  • r.r.s.

    boy did you nail this book!

  • catlover779

    This is completely incorrect. Maybe try to read the book next time.