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Lunch » Tags » Books » Reviews » The Devil In The White City: Murder, Magic, Madness, And The Fair That Changed America » User review

Reads like Fiction

  • Jul 31, 2004
Pros: Good history, great suspense, reads like fiction, but is based on fact.

Cons: Not one that I can think of!

The Bottom Line: I was fascinated by the material in this book and very pleased with the reading of it. It gives a great feel for the time period discussed.

This book was assigned as the book for my students' UIL competition. I bought it but didn't get around to it for a while. Gearing up for the competition, I checked with the kids (these are high school juniors) and they all said "Miss, this is a good book."

Hmmm. I coach a lot of different academic competitions, and I have to coax a lot of kids to do a lot of things, but "Miss, this is a good book" is not a common response.

Feeling a big chagrined, I FINALLY got around to it and I found this book to be FASCINATING on many levels.

The story of the Chicago Exposition of 1893 is woven around the story of America's first "wholesale" serial killer. The information is factual, taken from newspaper accounts and personal journals. The two stories are separate, although they unified by the same time frame and location. The book advances in a chronological manner and goes back and forth between the separate stories.

As an art historian, I was fascinated by the description of the process of first getting the exposition in Chicago, and then what the architects had to go through to design a unified whole. The architects had to deal with incredible adversity to build this amazing site with lots of "difficult personalities" on the team. There were time constraints that seemed impossible, yet in the end, they pulled off something amazing. This Exposition is where the Ferris Wheel originated, from an effort to "out-Eiffel" the Eiffel Tower which drew such crowds five years earlier.

As a reader of fiction, I was amazed and appalled at the devious nature of the book's villain. Much of the information about him was taken from pubic record and from the work of the policeman that hunted him down. It demonstrates clever and tenacious detective work. The author does embellish with characterization, but states this in the afterword. Most of the information is fact.

This is some "edge of your seat" kind of reading. Not only are the developers of the exposition on the edge, but the story of the serial killer who preyed upon young women drawn to the city for the exposition both intrigues and mortifies the reader.

This book is GOOD reading. The history is solid and the entertainment value lends credence to the saying "truth is stranger than fiction." It reads like a mystery novel, but provides solid factual information.

This book requires no previous knowledge of the subject, although anyone with some knowledge of the society of late 19th century America will be delighted to see this event put into a wonderfully readable format.

I'm in two book clubs and both of them have chosen this book for the next year. I'm so excited because I've already read and I can't wait to discuss it!


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review by . September 30, 2008
Creepy-cool history of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, intertwined with the history of the serial killer H. H. Holmes who was operating at and around the Fair and may have accounted for anywhere from 9 (confirmed) to 50 (suspected) to even 200 (conjectured) murders.     Reads like an atmospheric slasher novel, except it is history, and thoroughly footnoted from contemporary accounts as well as secondary sources. The couple of scenes where Larson assumes an omniscient authorial …
review by . May 19, 2010
Murder, Mayhem, and National Pride
Erik Larson must have spent a year just doing the research for The Devil in the White City. I probably learned more about our nation's history from reading this book than I did in an entire college course. In the book, Larson combines two stories: the story of the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago and the story of H.H. Holmes, one of the U.S.'s first serial killers. This is an incredible story, and each page of the book is filled with little tidbits that make you think, "Hmm...why did …
review by . October 09, 2010
As Chicago entered the final decade of the 19th century, it was a black city with a black heart, a figurative and literal pig sty run by a civil administration rife with graft and dominated by the stink of the pig slaughtering industry that was run by the local equivalent of capitalist robber barons. In a shocking affront to New York City's insufferable sense of superiority, Chicago's city fathers somehow won the right to host the 1893 World Fair. Despite the astonishing crime rates, the …
Quick Tip by . October 09, 2010
An interesting, informative and exciting juxtaposition of two wildly different historical events that took place in Chicago - the creation of the 1893 Columbian Exposition and the terror of America's first documented serial killer, Dr H.H. Holmes.
review by . July 15, 2010
I'm not usually a fan of non-fiction but this book was amazing. I was spellbound as I read. The author did a great job of describing the time period, it made me almost sad to live now and not then. I was in awe at the descriptions of architecture and building even though I previously had no experience with either of these. That, combined with the descriptions of the "evil" guy's psychotic personality was a great combination that kept me turning the pages. I would recommend …
Quick Tip by . July 05, 2010
good stuff, learned a lot and got freaked out!
Quick Tip by . July 01, 2010
Loved this! Great look at a unique moment in history and a little known serial killer - nicely woven into one.
Quick Tip by . June 28, 2010
An excellent combining of history with imagination. Erik Larsen weaves plots together in this book with great skill!
Quick Tip by . June 24, 2010
Quick Tip by . June 23, 2010
Enjoyed the dark subject matter and historical recount of the world's fair.
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About this book


The 1893 Chicago World's Fair is the setting for this true account of two very different men: the celebrated architect Daniel H. Burnham, who designed and supervised the construction of the "White City" around which the fair was built; and H.H. Holmes (born Herman Webster Mudgett), a fiendishly clever serial killer posing as a doctor, who murdered scores of people, mostly young women, in his World's Fair Hotel, which contained a gas chamber and a handy crematorium for disposing of his victims. Telling their entwined stories in alternating points of view, Erik Larson illuminates the lives of these two men, but also provides insightful commentary on the changes that were taking place in American society that allowed both phenomena--a grandiose World's Fair and a string of unsolved murders--to take place. The book contains cameo appearances by such late-19th-century celebrities as Buffalo Bill Cody, Susan B. Anthony, and Thomas Edison.
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Books, Book, Cafe Libri, Usa, History, 19th Century, Chicago Worlds Fair


ISBN-10: 0375725601
ISBN-13: 978-0375725609
Author: Erik Larson
Genre: History
Publisher: Vintage
Date Published: May 03, 2005
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