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Thursday, December 24, 2015

Book Review: The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

 The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
Unabridged, 15 hr.
Random House Audio
Scott Brick (Narrator)
September 12, 2003
★★★★ ½☆

Genre: Non-Fiction

Source: Purchased the audio from Audible

“Author Erik Larson imbues the incredible events surrounding the 1893 Chicago World's Fair with such drama that readers may find themselves checking the book's categorization to be sure that 'The Devil in the White City' is not, in fact, a highly imaginative novel. Larson tells the stories of two men: Daniel H. Burnham, the architect responsible for the fair's construction, and H.H. Holmes, a serial killer masquerading as a charming doctor.

Burnham's challenge was immense. In a short period of time, he was forced to overcome the death of his partner and numerous other obstacles to construct the famous "White City" around which the fair was built. His efforts to complete the project, and the fair's incredible success, are skillfully related along with entertaining appearances by such notables as Buffalo Bill Cody, Susan B. Anthony, Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison.

The activities of the sinister Dr. Holmes, who is believed to be responsible for scores of murders around the time of the fair, are equally remarkable. He devised and erected the World's Fair Hotel, complete with crematorium and gas chamber, near the fairgrounds and used the event as well as his own charismatic personality to lure victims.”
One of the recent trends I have noticed in several non-fiction books is that toward parallel story lines of seemingly disparate subjects that ultimately come together to tell a well-rounded account of a subject. I have seen this before in the threads of Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard revolving around the assassination of President James A. Garfield, the assassin Charles Guiteau, and Alexander Graham Bell and his development of the telephone. And I see it here in The Devil in the White City where Larson beautifully intertwines the events surrounding the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 and the murderous spree of H.H. Holmes.

I’ve been intrigued by the concept of the World’s Fairs since seeing the old classic, Meet Me in St. Louis starring Judy Garland and the featured St. Louis World’s Fair. I can’t even envision something quite like this – the closest thing I can even come close to it would be the Big E (Eastern States Exposition) every year in New England which is one of the largest state fairs in the country. So many awesome and amazing sites and innovations would have been unveiled at fairs like these especially at this time of industrialization and scientific development (I would have loved to have seen Ferris’ Wheel – but probably would not have taken a ride on it!). The Chicago World’s Fair was plagued by so many problems during its development it’s surprising it ever got off of the ground.

So many people came to the Fair from across the country and the world. Compare expected wonder and awe of a giant fair with the true horrors of a very real murder rampage by a Chicago local, H.H. Holmes. He was a confessed murderer of 27 (but with a body count possibly as high as 200!) and a regular con-artist too. His means were gruesome – and the author goes into a bit of that too, not so much gory, but you get the idea at what he’s getting at. It was sickeningly fascinating to hear the myriad of stories of how this man swindled so many.

The way the threads of different subject matter wrap together there is never a dull moment – and while this isn’t narrative non-fiction, it is certainly of a faster pace and more compelling than many offerings out there. He gives you so much detail about the daily lives of the people he is writing about, but it never feels like a “fact dump”, it simply engulfs the reader in the world. I have now read two of the works by this author and they are among my favorites – I would highly recommend him. And I have been hearing rumors that Leonardo DiCaprio owns rights to a film version of this book and intends to play the role of H.H. Holmes – and I think this work will lend itself well to a big screen treatment!

To get a taste of the narrative - check out this excerpt.

Every time I write about this narrator’s work, I keep repeating the same praise over and over. I previously have enjoyed his narrations of In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick and Salt by Mark Kurlansky. I loved how he kept the pace of the action while reading In the Heart of the Sea and he does the same here with The Devil in the White City. These are similar books in a way because the murder storyline certainly lends itself to a thriller-esque style. Not only is the text of the book never dull, but the narration only heightens that. Scott Brick is a narrator that I will keep my eye out for (with a couple others) and I think I will always enjoy his work. He brings a lot of thought into how he reads a book – and sometimes even the best book can be brought down by bad narration (and I find that happens much more often for me with non-fiction because as a genre it can be weightier).

You can listen to a sample of the fabulous audiobook narration here.

You can also watch a segment from Book TV where the author discusses this book.

Reviews of this book by other bloggers:

Buy the Book: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | RJ Julia

Also by Erik Larson:

Isaac’s Storm

Dead Wake

In the Garden of Beasts

Lethal Passage

The Naked Consumer


Find Erik Larson: Website | Facebook | Twitter


Copyright © 2015 by The Maiden’s Court

1 comment:

  1. I've heard good things about this book. It may be a good one for our history/historical fiction book club. We've been reading more nonfiction lately.


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