The Picky Girl RAVES about The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

7th March 2011

“Murder, Madness, and Magic at the Fair That Changed America”


So let me just be honest here: This book was amazing. Just flat-out amazing. There were things I didn’t love, but there was so much about it that was phenomenal that the other is certainly negligible in terms of the overall effect.

The Devil in the White City is about The World’s Exposition in Chicago in 1893 and everything leading up to it. The previous exposition had elicited excitement never before seen, and the Eiffel Tower was considered to be the epitome of man’s progress at that time. As the book puts it, the States had to “Out-Eiffel Eiffel.” Chicago wins the bid, and the men and women involved in the project begin a mad dash toward an all-but-impossible deadline. Larsen juxtaposes the architects’ plans and struggles with a serial killer operating at the time, Dr. H.H. Holmes (whose aliases are too numerous to mention here). It is a very odd mashup, and he explains in the notes that “the juxtaposition of pride and unfathomed evil struck [him] as offering powerful insights into the nature of men and their ambitions.” Eh, it didn’t work for me. I certainly see the fascination, but to me, the exposition and its creators were far more interesting.

As Larsen follows Chicago’s bid and then the exposition’s creation and completion, he points out small details, keeping me hooked. The White City (named so because all the buildings were painted white) stood as a land of promise against the dark background of Chicago, with its filth and soot. The possibility held within the confines of the exposition were so overwhelming people would sob upon viewing the White City, and many were depressed after its closing, knowing they had seen the most amazing sight in their lifetime.

I don’t want to give away any of the magic moments of this book, but it sure has them. The inventions and innovation were unbelievable, and I had to Google them several times (even though I knew this was nonfiction) to find out more. It is truly incredible what and who this short period of time spawned.

If you’ve read this, what did you think? Does anyone know of any other nonfiction about the Exposition or any fictional accounts? I’d love to delve deeper here.

Read this one: immediately / asap / when you get a chance / if you’re bored

jenn aka the picky girl


  • I agree, this book is amazing. It’s interesting on so many levels, from the plot to the history to the writing. I live just thirty miles from Chicago, and some of the buildings from this book are still there. It’s so exciting to see them and to know from whence they came after reading this!

    • pickygirl

      Oh my gosh – I would love to see them. I was devastated when I found out the intention all along was to tear them down once the exposition was over. I savored this book. As you’re from the area, do you know of other books about or set during the Exposition? I want more!

  • I don’t know why I haven’t read this though I’ve only heard great things. I think it’s because my TBR pile is light on non-fiction.

    I’d highly recommend Rupert Holmes’s SWING. It’s a mystery that takes place in 1940 at an international expo in San Francisco. There are fascinating details about the city, era, people, etc. It also comes with a CD of original music composed by Holmes that contains clues! If you don’t know music, though, there are enough clues in the book for it to be satisfying.

    • pickygirl

      Oh my gosh – please read it. I think it would be right up your alley. I just added Swing to my list and am pumped. I’m headed to the library today and crossing my fingers they have it!

      I am usually light on nonfiction but not lately. I’ve read some terrific stuff.

  • This is one of my favorite books *ever.* I am currently listening to the audio version of Isaac’s Storm and thoroughly loving Erik Larsen once again – he just has such a distinct ability to take what any other author might write boringly, and makes it instead dramatic, educational, and suspenseful. Absolutely love this book. I’ve heard they’re going to make a film version soon, with Leonardo DiCaprio as the lead for H.H. Holmes – can’t wait to see it!

    • pickygirl

      I just loved all those great tidbits about Walt Disney and Helen Keller and everything. Fantastic. What is Isaac’s Storm about? Is it nonfiction too?

      • Yep, Isaac’s Storm is another non-fiction by Erik Larson. (He also has Thunderstruck which I have on my bookshelves). Isaac’s Storm is about the hurricane in Galveston in 1900 that completely destroyed the city just when it was beginning to be a major location for business and growth – so far it is unbelievable and amazing! And I just remembered that you live in Texas – you might like this one!

        • pickygirl

          Galveston is actually a little over an hour from me! That is so crazy. The hurricane of 1900 has always fascinated me. So many unbelievable stories came out of that. I am definitely adding it to the list. Thanks so much for telling me about it!

          • My husband was stationed for a short period of time with the Coast Guard in Galveston about 10 years ago and loved it – I want to visit, especially now that we’re listening to Isaac’s Storm. Well, not sure if anything is still standing after that hurricane, but still! I hope you enjoy it – and I can’t wait to start reading Thunderstruck, too. That one is supposed to be about a ship in Edwardian London – of course, my response when I picked it up was “Who cares what it’s about? Erik Larson wrote it!” ๐Ÿ™‚

  • I’ve been seeing this one around but haven’t been convinced enough to try it. I think you’ve stated well why I should read it so off I’m going to add it to Mt. toppling-over-TBR. Great review!

    • pickygirl

      I’m so glad I convinced you. Please let me know what you think of it. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. And thanks for the compliment!

  • Yes, a terrific review. It brought the book back vividly to mind. I read it last year and enjoyed it very much. (The serial killer aspect of the story gave me the real creeps!)

    I mostly read fiction, but now and then there’s nothing like a really good non-fiction book. One you might like (though it is quite different from the Larson book) is THE LOST CITY OF Z by David Grann. It’s all about the search for an El Dorado-like city of gold in the Amazon region of South America. The story took place in the early part of the 20th century. I couldn’t put it down. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • pickygirl

      Wow. Thanks for the tip. I’ve heard the title but not what it was about.

      I felt the same way about the serial killer bit. Larson did a great job of ending sections in such a way that I was totally freaked out.

      Thanks for stopping by and saying hello!

  • Sweet – I just picked up a copy of this book and now I’m even more excited to read it.

    • pickygirl

      Oh my gosh – it’s phenomenal. I didn’t want to put it down, and it really made me want to go to Chicago. Enjoy!

  • I have to agree with you that the book was an excellent read and a real eye opener to a time period I have not read that much about. Actually it is the first book that I have ever read that revolves around a World Exposition and the one in Chicago was just so awe inspiring. Have now ordered his other book Isaac’s Storm, hoping that it will just as good. I do not agree with Coffee and a Book Chick that this is one of my favorite books ever, but it is definitely a well written book and the “murder castle” did give one a bit of a chill! Thanks for the review.

    • Same for me re: this being your first read about the World Exposition. I’d really like to read more about it and the one in Paris. Thank you for stopping by! It isn’t my favorite ever, but I really love the history and the great moments Larson creates. Good luck with Isaac’s Storm. I need to pick that one up as it is about a place right near me.