The Devil in the White City

Erik Larson

Subtitled Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair That Changed America, this thoroughly researched examination of the factors involved in creating Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition carries as a sort of grotesquely titillating subplot the machinations of one of America’s first well-documented serial killers, Dr. H. H. Holmes. One can sympathize with Larson’s decision to try to blend these two tales; the story of the exposition on its own can bog down in a tedious catalogue of rich men’s personal squabbles, budgetary difficulties and aesthetic arguments attached to the genuinely awesome physical challenges of building “the greatest fair ever seen” on a piece of land very ill-suited to the task. And so he brings in the story of Holmes, a psychopathic swindler and mass murderer of the most charming sort who happened to operate in the shadow of the exposition. The two tales never fullly mesh in a more than coincidental way, but Larson’s narrative skill and detailed research give a fascinating dual glimpse into fin-de-siècle America.