It’s not so often, really, that I get multiple recommendations for the same book over the span of a couple years. That is exactly the case, however, for The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. I got so many recommendations for it that I finally bought it about a year and a half ago. It’s been sitting on my to be read pile for such a long time, I almost forgot I had it. Now that I’m actually living in Chicago, there’s been a serious uptick of people recommending this book to me and I figured I may as well dig into it and have a nice Chicago serial killer book to talk to strangers about (you may laugh but 3 different people struck up conversations with my when I read this on the train, which was partly nice and partly annoying…I was trying to read!)
The Devil in the White City follows two true stories, that of Henry H. Holmes, a serial killer who used the World’s Fair in Chicago 1893 to find victims, and Daniel Burnham and his team of designers who put the World’s Fair together. It is the kind of fabulous combo of salacious gore and the beauty of daring to dream that you usually find in twisted fiction so the fact that it’s all true is even more fascinating. It’s also where I get a bit hung up about the book. It’s funny because I’ve mentioned before that I often have a hard time reading non fiction and that I think this is because it’s simply not the type of narrative I’m accustomed to, well this is the type of narrative I’m looking for in non fiction and I find I don’t trust it. I got what I wanted. I got a narrative minded, character driven non fiction story and the fact that there are details in it that fill it out to be the story it is makes me think, “Well, but can we trust it?” Erik Larson speaks to this a bit in his note at the beginning and mentions that any dialogue he has included he found written down by the person speaking in his research. There are moments, however, when he’s describing the look in a characters eyes and my whole brain just kind of shouts at the book BUT YOU WEREN’T THERE THOUGH. It get’s a bit speculative, is what I’m saying. I don’t think this is a bad thing necessarily, Erik Larson clearly did his research and came up with some fascinating info, but if you’re a stickler for non fiction sticking to the absolute facts this may not be the book for you.
My pettiness aside, I really did enjoy this book. I sometimes felt like I was reading the gossip column 1893, which, as I read it back, sounds like a snarky comment, but it’s not, I love a good bit of gossip. The various bits of bad luck, odd coincidences, quirky people and questionable decisions of the people who were putting together the World’s Fair makes this an interesting enough book to pick up and read. Add to that a serial killer who managed to fully install a gas chamber and crematorium in a hotel during the Fair and you’ve got yourself a fascinating book. Holmes’ chapters did start to feel like they all ended with a giant DUN DUN DUNNNN, which got a bit old after a while, but wading through the forced drama was worth it for the murder story.
What I am most excited about though is the fact that I live in the city that introduced the world to the Farris Wheel. I don’t know why that’s not Chicago’s logo. “We gave you the Farris Wheel. You’re welcome for all the delight.” Should be printed on every one of the city flags. I also want to track down some of the places from the book that still exist and go for whatever walking tours I can. I love a good walking tour and if they can promise a cheesy guide who tries to spook me out I’m even more game. Bring it cheesy guide, I love to be mildly spooked. Hopefully I’ll be able to report back with a travel post about the various ways to explore the city of Chicago through the lens of Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness At the Fair That Changed America.