Thursday, December 15, 2016

Book 55: The Devil In The White City

 "Every day he saw them stepping from trains and grip-cars and hansom cabs, inevitably frowning at some piece of paper that was supposed to tell them where they belonged. The city's madams understood this and were known to meet inbound trains with promises of warmth and friendship, saving the important news for later. Holmes adored Chicago, adored in particular how the smoke and din could envelop a woman and leave no hint that she had ever existed, save perhaps a blade-thin track of perfume amid the stench of dung, anthracite, and putrefaction."
Dates read: May 20-26, 2016

Rating: 7/10

Lists/awards: NY Times Bestseller

Even growing up in so-called "flyover country", I still lived just a 5 hour drive away from the third largest city in the country: Chicago. I'd been there a handful of times, but never for more than a weekend and not for quite a while (I actually had plans to visit with one of my good friends before I impulsively decided to move to Reno in 2012). I've always wanted to go there with more time to explore, and so when Drew and I were trying to figure out where to spend our honeymoon (he's not into the lazing-on-the-beach scene, I'm not into the sleeping-in-a-tent-in-the-woods scene), we finally settled on Chicago as a place with lots to see and do and eat. It was a wonderful time and it's a great city and I can't wait to go back and see even more of it someday!

Well over a hundred years before our trip, though, Chicago hosted an event of arguably more importance: the 1893 World's Fair. The Fair brought to America for the first time things that we still use today: alternating current, the moving walkway, and the Ferris Wheel (which was actually created to rival the prize jewel of the Paris World's Fair four years before: the Eiffel Tower). Almost 30 million visitors passed through its gates to see its wonders. It was also home to H. H. Holmes, a serial killer who preyed on young single women. Erik Larson's Devil In The White City takes the stories of how the Fair came to be and Holmes' activities and winds them together to create a book that looks at the at the Fair but also outside of it.

I was super looking forward to this when I started it: with the huge amount of praise it got, and how much I enjoyed Larson's most recent Dead Wake, it seemed like it was going to easily be a new favorite. But I just didn't get really into it the way I was hoping. Which doesn't mean it wasn't good! It was, quite good in fact. But Larson's threading together of the different stories wasn't quite as skilled as it was in Dead Wake. Since I was in the middle of being stressed out about planning my own event as I was reading it (less than a month before my wedding), the long recounting of the delays and problems of planning and building the Fair just gave me anxiety. But I think even without my personal baggage, I would have found this portion of the book a little overlong. I get what Larson's trying to do: you know it did come together and was successful in the end (he tells you that much right from the beginning), and as he recounts mishap after mishap, it's supposed to keep you hooked and wonder how in the world it got pulled off. But at a certain point I just wanted to the Fair to start already because I knew it was going to and I was tired of hearing about how it almost didn't.

The part of the story about the Fair is so dominant that the part about the serial killer (which was honestly the part I was most interested in) gets a little bit of the short shrift. Holmes and his story kind of lurk around the outside edges, which I suppose is appropriate since lurking around the edges of the Fair is exactly what Holmes did in real life. But every time the book turned back to the Fair from Holmes I groaned a little inside, because I found the latter so much more compelling. The book effectively ends by devoting itself to wrapping up Holmes' plotline, and it was the first time I felt reluctant to put the book down since I started it. On the whole the book is well-written, interesting, and definitely worth a read, but don't go in expecting it to be mostly about one of America's first serial killers or you might be a little disappointed.

Tell me, blog friends...have you ever been to Chicago?

One year ago, I was reading: Occidental Mythology


  1. So I preferred White City to Dead Wake...haha! And I've amazingly enough never been to Chicago. I'll blame my East Coast existence.

    1. I mean, they're both good books. I really enjoy the way Larson writes, I've got a couple of his others on my TBR! Chicago is awesome, I definitely recommend making it one of these days!

  2. I grew up outside Chicago, and I love that you chose it as your honeymoon destination! I moved away in my late teens and haven't returned as an adult- but I really want to. I've considered reading this book before, but after reading this review I should probably skip it. I would also be more drawn towards the murder plot, disappointing that it wasn't the focus.

    1. We had an amazing time, it's such a great city with so much to do (and eat, which was top of mind after the wedding diet). It's definitely still a well-researched and well-written book, but if you're looking for an account of H.H. Holmes with the Fair as a backdrop instead of the other way around...this won't be what you were hoping for.