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The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

As a fan of fiction, I tend to appreciate the use of language and the music inherent in piece of writing. However, as a fan of history and knowledge, I thoroughly enjoy what non-fiction can give to the reader. Usually the two genres are very distinctive and separate and never the twain shall meet.

However, Erik Larson broke all of the ideas I held about what fiction and non-fiction are.

The Devil in the White City reads like fiction. The reader continually forgets she's reading a historical occurence (and given some of the subject matter, sometimes the reader wants to stay under that delusion). He tells two intersecting stories that are so beautiful intertwined that if you were to read this as fiction, you'd believe the author was just placing his characters in the middle of major events for a little bit of sensationalism. But... this is non-fiction. Every word in this story happened and that knowledge makes this work even more incredible.

This story very much reminded me of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood (Confession: I can't take credit for this comparison. One pretty smart dude in my book group pointed that out). Larson accomplished that same feeling that the reader was being told a story, while demonstrating incredible inside access to the details that likely aren't available to the wider public. However, unlike Capote, we know that Larson couldn't have possibly spent time with H.H. Holmes or Daniel Burhman. This fact increases the incredible scope of the author's work.

In the end, I love that this story was more a love letter to the ingenuity and strength of America than it was the horrific tale of a serial killer. The overarching theme is the resilience of spirit that made our young country what it is today.


Two men, each handsome and unusually adept at his chosen work, embodied an element of the great dynamic that characterized America's rush toward the twentieth century. The architect was Daniel Hudson Burnham, the fair's brilliant director of works and the builder of many of the country's most important structures, including the Flatiron Building in New York and Union Station in Washington, D.C. The murderer was Henry H. Holmes, a young doctor who, in a malign parody of the White City, built his World's Fair Hotel just west of the fairgrounds a torture palace complete with dissection table, gas chamber, and 3,000-degree crematorium. Burnham overcame tremendous obstacles and tragedies as he organized the talents of Frederick Law Olmsted, Charles McKim, Louis Sullivan, and others to transform swampy Jackson Park into the White City, while Holmes used the attraction of the great fair and his own satanic charms to lure scores of young women to their deaths. What makes the story all the more chilling is that Holmes really lived, walking the grounds of that dream city by the lake.

The Devil in the White City draws the reader into a time of magic and majesty, made all the more appealing by a supporting cast of real-life characters, including Buffalo Bill, Theodore Dreiser, Susan B. Anthony, Thomas Edison, Archduke Francis Ferdinand, and others. In this book the smoke, romance, and mystery of the Gilded Age come alive as never before. Erik Larson's gifts as a storyteller are magnificently displayed in this rich narrative of the master builder, the killer, and the great fair that obsessed them both.

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