Reviewing non-fiction books is hard. You can’t just say “I didn’t like the story”—I’m not saying that—because the story isn’t up for debate: it happened, these people existed. “Devil in the White City” is about the Chicago’s World Fair and all the trouble it faced prior, and during it’s opening, as well as all the innovations the fair gave rise to that we still enjoy today. It’s also about the serial killer Dr. H.H. Holmes who happened to be “working” in Chicago during the time of the fair’s construction, opening, and closing. Holmes didn’t explicitly go to Chicago to take advantage of the fair in order to do his dark deeds, that seems more coincidental as Holmes was already in Chicago at the time and continued his “work” after leaving Chicago as well. So, really, the two events are barely connected and what you get is two different books in one. Are both good and fascinating? Sure. Does Larson have a wonderful ability for maintaining suspense and keeping the reader engaged in both stories? Yes. Was this what I was expecting when I bought this book? No.
I’ll be honest, I wanted a lot more about Holmes and his workings, how he killed, and more into his psyche… which I totally admit makes me sound like a crazy person: “Tell me more about how this serial killer kills people and what he does with the bodies!” Yes, that was me. But honestly, I don’t think you can blame me for that. So what I thought I was getting was an account of how Holmes who I, admittedly, didn’t know much of anything about prior to this book, used the anonymity awarded by the fair drawing in all these tourists to hunt and kill people. Given those circumstances, it would be incredibly easy for someone to disappear. But instead, this was maybe 70% about the different architects who were responsible for bringing the fair to life and their issues with making that dream a reality.
That component surprised me, I wasn’t expecting so much history about Chicago’s fair at the time. I was irked for a bit, wondering when we’d get to the juicy parts. But Larson has a great way of writing that makes something that would otherwise be pretty dry feel dark and thrilling. It won me over after a while, and I enjoyed learning how the fair had a lasting impact on America—the first Ferris Wheel, Shredded Wheat, beautifying America’s cities, and even the type of electricity/light bulbs we use today. I learned a lot, albeit begrudgingly. But that’s what makes rating this book so, so hard. All of it was interesting but what I wanted was more of Holmes, and the things I did get about him felt a bit lackluster compared to all the well documented history surrounding the fair, its construction, and the troubled Irish man whose actions had the fair end on a sad note.
There just isn’t much about Holmes in terms of historical accounts. Even what we do have that is considered fact is sparse, however it felt even thinner in “Devil in the White City”. There was a lot of “fade to black” when Larson wrote about Holmes’ victims and how he killed, only hinted at what the various rooms in his Murder Castle were meant for, or even anything about how/why he choose certain victims. Granted, the author did the best he could with what he had (which wasn’t a lot), but I had expected more, or at least an equal balance between Holmes and the fair, based on the synopsis and, therefore, still feel a bit let down. Again, the writing is superb for a non-fiction book, everything presented is interesting and I did learn a lot, but the thing I wanted, the thing that makes me feel weird for wanting so much, was just not there. I’d still recommend this book to anyone who is interested in Chicago, and American, history as it was an interesting time and the fair was such a wonder that almost didn’t happen. But if you want something more about the serial killer who happened to live in Chicago at the same time, this is just ok. So for me, this is a 3.5 star because I wanted to read a lot more about the murders and that wasn’t really present in this book. But hey, my dark preferences aside, at least I learned something, right?
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