I read this book a few years prior to this writing. Coming into it I was expecting, like other reviewers, to be more interested in the sordid tales of H.H Holmes and his infamous ‘Murder Castle’ rather than the great engineering feat that was the 1893 World’s Fair. But during the reading of this book I found myself almost wanting at times to skip past the sections focusing on Holmes story to get back to the fascinating and inspirational story of Daniel H. Burnham and Fredrick Law Olmstead, and their miraculous and gargantuan feat of pulling off the grandest exposition that had ever been seen up until that time.
I agree with the other reviewers that have mentioned that Larson shot himself in the foot a bit by holding back on his depictions of Holmes. I understand he wants to maintain historical credibility and so doesn’t have free reign as if he were writing fiction, but for the sake of the book’s balance and readability, I think this would have been a more overall entertaining and informative read if he had indulged just a little more and while still staying within the bounds of known historical accounts, let Dr. H.H Holmes loose a little bit. If you’re going to write a book about one of the most horrific and twisted serial killers in American history, not to mention one of the least written about, I think you owe it to the readers to give them the full story including the sordid sexual deviancy and the more sensational aspects of his crimes. They are here in parts, but not enough, and there’s nothing else that makes the story of Holmes feel like it’s on the same level as the story of the Fair and Daniel Burnham.
You can tell Larson’s passion and interest (understandably) was more in tune with the story of the World’s Fair rather than with Holmes horrors. Nonetheless, the selling point of the book is the interweaving of these two events which did actually transpire at the same place, at the same time in history, and it is a great chilling contrast to read of Holmes in his black hat strolling through the splendor of the 1893 Exposition, and would have been all the more chilling if Holmes had been more of a compelling character here rather than just a dark backdrop… Perhaps it is fitting though that we should forget the atrocities of this sick individual while glorying in the great tale of architecture and humanity that Larson brings out in his depiction of the World’s Fair’s construction.
Overall, I found this to be a well written and interesting account of life in late nineteenth century Chicago. You really get a great feel of what it would have been like for the average person to exist back then and get several colorful stories of people trying to make a name for themselves through this Exposition. The story of the Fair unfolds like a great little novel with many great twists and turns, and this book is worth reading just for that alone, in my humble opinion anyway.
After you read this you will want to go and dig up all the pictures and history you can (although this book provides an ample amount of that history itself) regarding Burnham, the Fair, and the dazzling White City.
Devil in the White City gets a three out of five: GOOD.