In The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson attempts to illluminate both the depths and the heights of human nature by intertwining the lives of two men, Daniel H. Burnham and H. H. Holmes. Burnham, an accomplished architect, was the driving force behind the 1893 Chicago World Fair. He wanted the Fair to be a spectacular symbol of civic pride and community, an inspiration to the nation and to the world. Meanwhile, Holmes seemed to be a charming, handsome hotel owner and businessman, but this was a deception that he used for horrific ends: the murders of vulnerable, isolated young women, whose bodies he then dismantled and sold. His hotel, to which the Fair drew patrons, was in fact designed and contructed to aid him in these goals.
That’s an interesting premise, surely. Unfortunately, the historical record brings Larson up short—where it doesn’t permit him to ramble. Though he has clearly done extensive research, a good deal of evidence about Holmes’ life and crimes is contradictory or no longer exists. Even if Larson has exhausted all possible sources, this book gives the impression that there’s not much to say about Holmes, perhaps not even more than a few chapters worth.
There’s plenty to say about the Fair, however, and readers who don’t want to know detail after detail about the bureaucracy and high society squabbling that surrounded it, and about every display, feature, and event that took place while it lasted, are going to be disappointed. I’m not saying a serial killer is all I wanted to read about, or that Larson should have written this book with a different aim in mind. With its most sensational aspect under-used, however, Larson worsens the book by making it feel more like a methodical recounting of historical events than an engaging story.
On top of this, the Holmes chapters are padded, and to little end. His looks and his effects on women are described over and over again, as though we may have somehow forgotten, while we were reading about the Fair, that he has blue eyes. He is also too often described as feeling peaceful during threatening or horrendous situations—on one occasion, twice in consecutive sentences. It’s frustrating to read chapters about him that may be only a few pages long before returning to considerably larger chapters about repetitive rivalries and setbacks involving an ever increasing number of people.
Larson attempts to put some drive into the story by dramatically foreshadowing events, but these weren’t effective. Deaths by pneumonia and disastrous fires are hinted at before they occur, but these hints are so artificial that they have little impact. It’s also difficult to be interested in all of the people who appear in the book, as there’s so very many of them. I cared little about the murder of Chicago’s mayor, and the various chapters throughout the book that described his killer did nothing to create a sense of suspense. This left me disinterested even by the final reveal of this madman’s long-portended actions.
I did enjoy parts of the book. The sinking of the Titanic is treated with pathos and the story of George Ferris and his remarkable creation is strongly memorable. And just as I was getting well and truly fed up, I reached the book’s two final sections. One describes the method through which Holmes was discovered, his final victims were found, and he was tried. It’s well-paced, focused, and truly saddening. The other describes the long-lasting effects of the Fair and the later lives of the people who were involved with it. Larson creates a wonderfully distant sense of the end of an era and the beginning of something new, something more like what we know, something that those people helped to create. If only the rest of the book were so affecting.