Posted by: Matt | August 22, 2007

The Devil in the White City

The Devil in the White CityThe Devil in the White City
Erik Larson

Reason for reading: I’d read very good reviews of it, many saying that it read like a novel. The subject also sounded very interesting, especially the serial killer. Also, I read this with my wife for our family book club.

Quote: (yet to come)


In 1893, the World’s Columbian Exposition opened in Chicago to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the New World. Chicago had been chosen over New York, Washington D.C. and other U.S. cities to host the world’s fair. It was an amazing accomplishment for its architectural marvels and the incredibly short time in which it was constructed. The fairgrounds were called the White City because of the whitewashing every building received and because of its many electrical lights which lit the grounds each night. During this period there was also an intense evil present in Chicago, a man who would murder unknown numbers becoming America’s first serial killer. He was Dr. H.H. Holmes, the devil in the White City.

World’s Columbian ExpositionErik Larson did a masterful job writing the story of the White City and Dr. Holmes. He has done an excellent job of giving the reader a feeling of just what an incredible accomplishment it was to have the fair open on time. The several set backs and immense scale of the project lead many to believe it an impossible task. The exposition went on to become the most well attended World’s Fair to that point in history. Unfortunately many people who visited Chicago, particularly young women, were never heard of again. Some of these fell pray to Holmes.

Holmes had a way of putting anyone at ease. He used this ability to lure in young attractive women and make them disappear. Larson once again did an excellent job at giving the reader an idea of the pure evil inside this man. The sections of the book relating the story of Dr. Holmes are fascinating, particularly the last section of the book which follows that story arc to its conclusion.

Though both the story of the fair and the murderer are interesting, it is the tale of the devil that particularly pulled me in. There is something about evil that fascinates people. We are left to wonder how someone can be so full of malice, so heartless and beyond feeling. As the book wound up the story of Dr. Holmes I was unable to put it down.

This is a wonderfully written book about a period in American history that is not much discussed today but which had a tremendous impact on the nation. It is highly recommended, particularly to anyone interested in American history. I have a new found desire to visit Chicago to see the place where this occurred.

Rating: 4.5



  1. Nice review, Matt. That was one of my favorites from last year. It led me to read Thunderstruck, in which he ties together the stories of Marconi and an English wife murderer. That one didn’t work quite as well for me, but you might want to take a look at it.

  2. Glad you liked this Matt, I thought this was a terrific book. And Chicago is a wonderful city ( I lived there for 5 years after college) – I definitely recommned a visit.

  3. I remember enjoying this book, but that something was off about the writing. Don’t remember what exactly. The murderer story line also creeped me out a little too much; he made him pure evil. So I think the book just made me uncomfortable; while that’s a good thing, in that he achieved his objective, it made the book a less than favourite.

  4. Sam Houston – I’ve read a few things about Thunderstruck, the consensus seems to be that it’s not as good, but still decent. I’ve thought about taking a look at some of his older books too.

    Tara – One day I’ll make it to Chicago. I’m not sure when though.

    Eva – I would have to pause occasionally while reading it to think about just how terribly evil the murderer was. He was certainly creepy, particularly how he was able to pull people in. I wish you remembered what you thought was off about the writing, I’m curious to see how it compares to my thoughts.

  5. Hi, Matt. The August post is fine from my end, so I added the link for you. Hope you don’t mind.

    Glad you enjoyed this book. I liked it, but not as much as you. 🙂

  6. Hear by way of the Non-Fiction five Challenge. I am looking forward to reading this book. I lecture about the ‘criminal mind’ in my psychology classes and always love to have ‘real life’ examples from which to draw from. Thanks..this goes on my list.

  7. oops, I meant HERE 😉

  8. Joy – Thanks, I’m not sure why it wasn’t working for me.

    Danielle B. – I think this H.H. Holmes would be a perfect example for your class. And it sounds like an interesting class!

  9. Ohhh, I loved this book and like you couldn’t wait to get to the parts about Holmes. I recently read Thunderstruck, but it didn’t have the same type of appeal but was still good. Great review!

  10. Trish – It seems to be a consensus that Thunderstruck is good but not as good as The Devil in the White City.

  11. Oh, I just got this from Bookmooch last week and I couldn’t wait to finish Manhunt before I started this one (I figure I should read one historical nonfiction book at a time). Luckily I finished Manhunt a few days ago, so I get to start Devil in the White City tomorrow. Yeah!

  12. J.S. Peyton – I hope you like it and I’ll be looking for your thoughts on it.

  13. This is one of the best books I have ever read. I could not put it down. The struggles to acomplish the construction of the Fair (I have an architectural background) and the unraveling of the Holmes case was a brillant depiction. Thanks Mr. Larson!

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