“I was born with the devil in me . . . I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than the poet can help the inspiration to sing.”

devilBooks on Tap read The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson at Champion Brewery on September 6.  Instead of usual novels, this title was a work of narrative nonfiction. It follows the men who established the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, those who planned and built it, and the male serial killer who took advantage of the influx of young women into the city.

What we most responded to was the rivalry Chicago felt with both Paris, the site of the previous fair, and New York, who competed to host the 1983 iteration. Larson shows both the civic cooperation and dysfunction that launched the fair, reminding us that the Windy City nickname is a result of its politicians as much as its weather. We also discussed the contrast between the White City of the fair and the Black City of open sewers and dark alleys. It was both the allure of the fair and the chaos of parts of the city that allowed serial killer H.H. Holmes to prey on the young woman who flooded the city looking for independence and work. While more workers at the fair died than Holmes probably killed, the state of police work and the undervaluing of the victims allowed Holmes to go undetected until he kidnapped three children.

All of our readers liked at least some parts of the story, especially tidbits about products introduced at the fair like the Ferris wheel, Cracker Jack and chewing gum. However, some readers thought that the book could have been more satisfying and faster-paced with fewer minor storylines. Larson, a former journalist, is a formidable researcher but not every detail was necessary to the story. He does pull the reader along by hanging the narrative on a few familiar names such as Frederick Law Olmsted and maintains suspense around Holmes’s activities, even though the reader already knows the broad outlines of the story. Ultimately, Larson’s research enabled us to trust him as a reliable reporter as he spun out this at times unbelievable tale.

More Information:
About the author
Interviews with the author
About the book
Upcoming movie
Images from the 1893 World’s Fair
The most recent World’s Fair in Kazakhstan in 2017

Related Recommendations:
Brunelleschi’s Dome by Ross King
The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt
The Last Castle by Denise Kiernan
The World of Tomorrow by Brendan Mathews
David McCullough, especially The Great Bridge
Nathan Philbrick, especially Sea of Glory

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