The Devil in the White City

The Devil in the White City
Erik Larson

The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, popularly known as the White City, brought together a number of interesting currents in American society, and Erik Larson manages to dip into most of them in this novelistic visit. But given the enormous public and critical success the book enjoyed, I’ll confess I came away underwhelmed. It’s much the same response I had to another huge bestseller of true crime, Midnight In the Garden of Good and Evil, and I think for a lot of the same reasons. There is no single coherent story being told, and it’s not even clear what psychological or thematic connection there is between the two leads: architect Daniel Burnham and serial killer H. H. Holmes. Furthermore, because the case of the latter is so complex and mysterious, the disjointed coverage it’s given here is both inadequate and hard to follow (I recommend Harold Schechter’s Depraved as a better source on Holmes’s criminal career). Even the writing is overdone and annoyingly repetitive in some of its effects (like the habit of delaying giving the reader an individual’s name until they can guess it for themselves). The effect is sort of like watching a PBS documentary on the Fair, which is fine as far as it goes but I was expecting more.

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