Review - The Devil in the White City

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America
by Erik Larson
350+ pages

Description via Goodreads
The corpses of dogs, cats, and horses often remained where they fell. In January they froze into disheartening poses; in August they ballooned and ruptured. Many ended up in the Chicago River, the city's main commercial artery. During heavy rains, river water flowed in a greasy plume into Lake Michigan, to the towers that marked the intake pipes for the city's drinking water (28)

I am thoroughly disappointed with this book. I just knew this would be a fascinating read--but it wasn't. It's not that it is non-fiction written like a novel. It's written very well, but it's not interesting. The majority of the book is literally a meticulous recounting of American architects and engineers banding together in 1893, to place a fair in Chicago representative of American exceptionalism, worthy of international praise and symbolic of the nation's great legacy and  innovation of the future. 

What is it--Murphy's law? Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. That's a basic description of the planning, opening, success and demise of the fair...weather disasters, politics, a bad economy, labor unions, accidents, vandalism, crime...wrong measurements, rejected blueprints...newspaper headlines. Every possible detail that can be accounted for in the existence of this fair is recounted. I suppose that's good research on Larson's part. But for this reader it really dragged...except for the chapters on Holmes, the psychopath woman predator and Prendergast, a mentally ill man with political aspirations. These chapters could have belonged in a different book altogether. They felt somewhat like an afterthought.  But they're flawed in the same way. There is no intrigue. No tension. Larson loves to foreshadow, to a fault. Where was the magic and the madness? I think I may be expecting too much from novelistic non-fiction.   

The Devil in the White City

Two stars


  1. Well, I didn't expect that. I agree good research sometimes gets in the way of storytelling. I always say: "If you wouldn't write it to your mother, don't write it."

    1. ...sometimes I feel like I'm not in the right mindset to read certain books. Maybe that's why I didn't like this one. But at the same time, I feel like my frame of mind should only affect the quality of the reading experience so much. I don't know. So you haven't read it? Or you have and you liked it?