Review #4: The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

I really wanted to like this book. It seemed to have gotten pretty good reviews on Amazon, but my dad tried reading it and couldn’t make it past the first 50 pages. I decided to give it a try anyway, and I ended up being really disappointed.

This book focuses on two stories: that of Chicago’s World Fair, in the 19th century, and that of H.H. Holmes, a charming young doctor who became a serial killer during the same time period. Larson describes, in great detail, the events leading up to the World Fair, as well as the Fair itself, and its aftermath. He also follows Holmes’ journey to Chicago, and his manipulation and subsequent murder of countless women, in addition to his various other frauds and smaller crimes.

My biggest problem with this book was that Larson does a really terrible job at weaving these two stories together. They’re pretty much unrelated, apart from the fact that they take place at the same time and in the same city; Larson does nothing to tie them together, or draw out any connections between them. He’ll abandon the Holmes storyline (which is far more interesting) for long stretches, during which he goes into painstaking detail about the Fair. This book was clearly not edited, at least not well, because there is so much irrelevant information that simply distracts from the important stuff. He also foreshadows so much that it becomes annoying–literally once every few pages, he’d say something like “this detail would soon prove to be important.” He also was a huge fan of paragraph breaks, which just made an already disjunctive narrative more unnecessarily fragmented. I found myself skimming pages because I was bored, or frustrated by the author’s writing style. Larson also fails to think about Holmes’ motivations, or to try and get inside his head, and doesn’t examine the consequences of the Fair in any meaningful way.

There’s a lot of cool information here: I learned a ton about the Fair, and was genuinely intrigued by the Holmes story. But I think each piece would have worked better on its own. Overall, I didn’t think it was worth the read.