“The Devil in the White City” was described to me as a true-crime thriller, covering the horrific murders of a serial killer who used the World Fair of Chicago to lure his victims. I decided this would be an interesting book to fulfill one of the checklist items of my 2018 “Read Harder” challenge. It would be intriguing and creepy, but would be far enough removed from the present-day where I wouldn’t get totally freaked out after reading it alone in my room at night.
I didn’t really have much to worry about.
The majority of the book actually consists of the tale of the World Fair itself. It follows the trials and tribulations faced by Burnham and Root, the “fathers” of the modern skyscraper and the lead architects of the World Fair, as they attempted to organize an event that would put the Paris Exposition of 1889 to shame. They enlist the help of Olmstead, renowned landscape artist, to help guide and plan the fair. Ultimately, there is some turmoil after Root passes away; things get off schedule, inclement weather torments the worksite, and Burnham is constantly battling the negative expectations of the media.
Sprinkled in-between the chapters focused on the planning of the fair are short, storylike tidbits where we’re introduced to the infamous serial killer – H.H. Holmes. Holmes built a mini-empire essentially down the street from the World Fair. Using his two-block-long building as a front for his shady business dealings and his even shadier murderous tendencies, he managed to conduct his dastardly dealings mostly unnoticed. Here, I was not disappointed – Holmes is one of the creepier serial killers and villains I’ve encountered in quite a while.
Unfortunately, while the subject of the book was undoubtedly interesting, the true-crime elements felt squeezed in. It was almost as if the author intended to write solely about the architectural planning and development of the World Fair, but somehow got convinced to force-fit a subplot about a serial killer. And, ultimately, that subplot was what I came for.
Well, maybe that’s not fair (no pun intended) – I was equally as interested in the World Fair as I was the serial killer. But the two tales were most definitely not given equal consideration, as I was led to believe. After getting through nearly half the book, I grew tired of listening to Olmstead drone on and on about his plants and poor health; I was done reading Burnham’s letters to his wife. I just wanted to cut to the chase and get to the interesting parts. I found myself skimming through some of the World Fair chapters just to get to the true-crime elements that I was expecting. This meant I was skimming away large portion of the book – the World Fair chapters felt two or three times as long as the Holmes chapters.
To give credit where credit is due, Erik Larson must have done a considerable amount of work and research in compiling this book. The text is littered with direct quotes from letters and correspondences amongst the main players of the World Fair. He even quotes Holmes’ written testimony. It’s one of the most in-depth historical books I’ve read in a long time – and more than I expected from a text covering an event that occurred almost 200 years ago. And, the novelistic style definitely made this a more interesting read than many of the other historical books I’ve read in the past.
That said, I still don’t know how I feel about the book. I didn’t wholeheartedly dislike it. I found the entire story to be pretty interesting – although perhaps it got too in-the-weeds on the planning aspect of the World Fair. However, I couldn’t help feeling mislead by the marketing strategy. At the end of the day, this is a good book – just maybe not a good true crime book.