Review by Jessica Dall
This book came highly recommended, promising to be both informative and thrilling—and with a title like The Devil in the White City, it seemed well poised to deliver on those promises. The Chicago World’s Fair (or World’s Columbian Exposition) in 1893, a serial killer, there are more chances for thrills and drama with just those two points than in many books altogether. So where does Larson go wrong?
With the expectation of thrills—there’s that Devil to worry about after all—Larson starts the reader off with the informative. All right, not the strongest opening for those interested in the serial killer side of things, but it does give a good background to the World Fair. Obviously Larson has done his research, and even if it’s more informative than entertaining, it’s information that’s good enough to know.
Unfortunately, this informative tone that manages to work talking about the World’s Fair also leaks over while Larson talks about H. H. Holmes, a man known as America’s first serial killer. For a book billed as having “such drama that readers may find themselves checking the book’s categorization to be sure that The Devil in the White City is not, in fact, a highly imaginative novel” it hardly seems to be off to a good start.
While there are moments that do manage to capture some sort of drama, both following the World’s Fair and H. H. Holmes, it quickly begins to feel like Larson wrote two books—one about the World’s Fair, which he was deeply interested in, piling up an impressive amount of research; the other about a serial killer named H. H. Holmes, whom he had a passing interest in. While the title, The Devil in the White City, suggests that each story should somehow weave together, complimenting each other, beyond both being in Chicago in 1893, there doesn’t seem to be much of connection between the two stories at all. Sure, a few of H. H. Holmes’s victims are people intending on going to the World’s Fair, but it isn’t until we have nearly reached the end of Holmes’s story that he even steps foot in the “White City.” With Holmes’s story ending a significant amount of time before Larson wraps up talking about the World’s Fair, it more and more leaves the lingering feeling that somewhere along the way, while Larson was writing about the Chicago World’s Fair, someone told him there needed to be more drama—so he threw in stuff about a serial killer.
By no means is Larson a poor writer. For both stories, the imagery is strong and—with minor exceptions—the wording is well-done. When others talk about the drama in the book, I would assume it is these positive qualities in Larson’s writing. Any sort of vivid imagery around death and murder tends to be powerful. However, reading any other information beyond the H. H. Holmes story in The Devil in the White City, it’s easy to find out that Larson censored many of the worst details about the serial killer—adding to the feeling, next to the astoundingly well researched World’s Fair story, that either Larson’s ideas for the H. H. Holmes story were lacklustre to begin with, or he is vaguely interested in the general idea of serial killers, but has a severe distaste for the specifics which, likewise, would damage his ability to keep the H. H. Holmes story on par with the World’s Fair story.
All in all, it would be difficult—if not impossible—to call Larson a bad writer. As far as writing skills, and research ability, he more than carries his own. Perhaps, then, the fault is in the titling of The Devil in the White City. The title alone promises more intrigue and drama than Larson seemed willing to deliver. With interesting points on both sides, his passion for writing about the World’s Fair seems to vastly overshadow any sort of story about H. H. Holmes, making it feel, at times, as though he didn’t even especially want to be writing about the serial killer at all. For those looking for some great information about the Chicago World’s Fair, The Devil in the White City provides a well written account. For those looking for a good story about the World’s Fair and a serial killer, it will more than likely leave you with a lopsided account that seems, overall, unfulfilling.
The Devil in the White City (2004) is available in hardback, paperback, audiobook, and ebook from Vintage Publishing, and will be premiering as a major motion picture in 2013.