My rating: Five out of five stars
Normally, the mere thought of a non-fiction book bores me. Normally, you'll only see a non-fiction book in my hand if it's for a class. Normally, I'd take every opportunity to complain about the non-fiction book that had been thrust upon me. I think of non-fiction books as dull and being unable to provide the same satisfying escape from my real life that I get when I read fiction. However, The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson is a happy exception to my reading tastes.
This novel parallels the stories of two men: Daniel Burnham, the architect who brought the dream of the World Fair to life in Chicago, and H.H. Holmes, the charming serial killer who uses the Fair to reel in a number of victims to rival nearly any other murderer in history. The two men never meet but their lives occasionally brush together on the Fairgrounds. Both have dreams of greatness: one to build breath-taking buildings and change the skyline of a city, and the other to watch the light fade out of a woman’s eyes as he takes her life into his hands and ends it.
Erik Larson has done his homework well because all of these characters are flushed out with enough detail that you could have sworn they came from his own mind. Even characters that appear for only a single page are written with enough personality and heart that you cannot forget them, no matter how small their role may have been.
The chapters alternate so naturally between Holmes and Burnham that I never felt myself growing bored with one character and yearning to move on to the other, as often happens with a book that has multiple narrators or points of view. Burnham’s passion for his buildings and his dreams of the Fair are just as gripping and fascinating as reading about Holmes’ desire to manipulate and dominate the people around him until he has no further need of them. The balance between the architect and the serial killer horrifyingly perfect; the two men are matched in their passions and their drives to see their dreams accomplished.
The real talent of this book is that it keeps you enthralled even when you already know what is going to happen. It is stated at the beginning that the Chicago World's Fair pulls through in the end and Holmes is a killer who gets away with countless murders for years. Even with this knowledge known from the start, you still can't help but cringe with each new blow to the development of the Fair and wonder how they can possibly overcome this new impossible obstacle; you can't stop yourself from gasping at each new horrific act Holmes carries out on his victims and pray for someone to catch him in the act.
The detail of the writing is incredible, especially for the scenes of Holmes and his victims. When he is described in his normal charming way, it is hard to imagine that he could possibly be a serial killer. But the horrifying details Larson commits to the pages of his novel about the various victims find new ways to make the reader cringe and call Jack the Ripper tame by comparison.
I picked up this book at the encouragement of a friend. Together, we read wide eyed at the detailed descriptions of the beautiful buildings going up one by one around the Fairgrounds beside testimonies of workers who unknowingly helped to build Holmes' murder castle. While workers died in the rush to finish construction for the opening of the Fair, Holmes was already testing his various techniques of torture and murder on the residents of his hotel. "I absolutely loved this book,” she said once she had read the final page. “The fact that all of this is non-fiction makes the book even more chilling." I blame her for any nightmares this book gave me and, at the same time, thank her for discovering The Devil in the White City and sharing it with me.
I really can find no flaws in this book. I loved the entire thing, cover to cover, and wouldn’t change a single word on the page. The writing, the characters, the pacing, the plot, everything is perfect just as it is. This is a book that even readers with a bias against non-fiction books can get immersed in.
(This review was originally published by myself in The Elm, the newspaper of Washington College.)