The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson Book Review

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson Book Review

I received this book for free from Library for review consideration, opinions expressed are 100% my own. This post contains affiliate links as indicated by an asterisk. Purchases from these links provides a small commission to me at no extra cost to you.

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
Publication Date: February 11, 2004
Pages: 447
Format: Paperback
Amazon Kindle* | Amazon Paperback*

Synopsis from Goodreads:

“Bringing Chicago circa 1893 to vivid life, Erik Larsen’s spell-binding bestseller intertwines the true tale of two men–the brilliant architect behind the legendary 1893 World’s Fair, striving to secure America’s place in the world; and the cunning serial killer who used the fair to lure his victims to their death. Combining meticulous research with nail-biting storytelling. Erik Larsen has crafted a narrative with all the wonder of newly discovered history and the thrills of the best fiction.”


My Thoughts:


I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed this piece of nonfiction, the suspense of the serial killer and the descriptions of the setting and architectural history read like a fiction novel. Devil in the White City covers Daniel Burnham, the hard-working and innovative architect who envisioned the World’s greatest exhibition.


Previously, Paris held the greatest world’s fair and the Eiffel tower stood as its impressive monument of their achievement. Burnham had the odds stacked against him, critics believed that America’s World’s Fair should be located in a bigger city like New York or Washington, DC.


Burnham had an impossibly short year to convert dreary Jackson Park into a magical masterpiece from scratch. The road was tumultuous and eventful, full of tragedies and heartache. How could Burnham and his collaborators “out-Eiffel Eiffel” and bring respect and acclaim to the celebration? I do not often further research a topic but since there were very few pictures in the book, I was curious as to what the Fair looked like.  So I had to google it found amazing images from the Chicago History Museum site.


Burnham’s esteemed colleagues included Robert Hunt, architect, and Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect.  Both men were also responsible for the Vanderbilt mansion and amazing grounds of the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC. We went to Biltmore a couple years ago and I was simple astounded by its beauty.


Hunt and Olmsted rode the trains back and forth from the Biltmore site and Jackson Park, juggling both magnificent projects at once. Olmsted considered himself an artist and was not regarded as highly as other artists during that time. According to Biltmore’s site, “in his efforts to protect the environment and reclaim over-farmed land, Olmsted established America’s first managed forest.” Olmsted saw beyond pretty and temporary flowers and envisioned that the landscape needed to tell a story even when the flowers were gone. Yet, look at the Walled Garden at Biltmore…I love that the Biltmore site describes each of the gardens and how each reflects Olmsted and Vanderbilt’s vision. Haven’t been to Biltmore before? I could write an entire post about the beauty and fun that is Asheville, it’s one of our favorite Southern vacation spots.


I felt a deeper connection to the story having visited both Chicago and the Biltmore Estate before. During our Chicago trip, I was frankly bored by the river cruise around the city and the guide’s lecture about the architecture. I did not quite understand at the time, why the architecture was the source for Chicago’s city pride or how they created this amazing exhibition from a city full of stench, crime and illness. While the Navy Pier area was gorgeous, I would like to revisit Chicago and see Jackson Park as it is today. The book certainly provided the perspective I needed to appreciate the insurmountable task before the architects and landscapers on this project.


I also found the details about the history and lifestyle during 1893 very interesting and like a potpourri of trivia. I kept reading thinking, wow, I didn’t know this was that old! I didn’t know it was because of the World Fair! Those little connections to the past kept me yearning to read the rest although it was difficult at times to get through the book.


Of course, I can’t review without commenting on the mentally ill Dr. H.H. Holmes, the serial killer whom this book is also about. The book disturbingly details how Dr. Holmes created his hotel death trap and how he conned those he worked with who were none the wiser during construction.  Reading about Holmes murderous plot was like watching a horror movie unfold and screaming at the TV, “Don’t go in the dark basement! Don’t you know what’s down there?” Instead I found myself screaming at the book, “Don’t do that! Can’t you read the signs?” It was gruesome and appalling how Holmes used the Fair’s publicity to lure his victims and evade being caught.


IMDB shows that this movie is in development with Leonardo diCaprio or Brad Pitt playing Dr. H.H. Holmes? What do you think? I’m not sure either of them is psychotic enough to play Dr. Holmes.


This was definitely a roller coaster of a book from the richness of the history to the sick to my stomach recount of the killings.  Larson is quite a storyteller and I’d certainly read others of his books.  I love how much I learned reading this book and how it prompted me to want to learn more about the World Fair.  Not many books have me wanting to learn more…and this one did.



Favorite Quotes:


“His weakness was his belief that evil had boundaries.”


“Beneath the gore and smoke and loam, this book is about the evanescence of life, and why some men choose to fill their brief allotment of time engaging the impossible, others in the manufacture of sorrow. In the end it is a story of the ineluctable conflict between good and evil, daylight and darkness, the White City and the Black.”


“I will be on the look out for you, my dear girl,” he wrote. “You must expect to give yourself up when you come.” For this buttoned-up age, for Burnham, it was a letter that could have steamed itself open.”

Have you been to Chicago or to the Biltmore Estate? Have you read this book or any of Larson’s other novels? If you were casting this movie, who would you pick for Holmes and Burnham? Let me know your thoughts and as always, happy reading!


About Erik Larson

From Goodreads: “Erik Larson, author of the international bestseller Isaac’s Storm, was nominated for a National Book Award for The Devil in the White City. He is a former features writer for The Wall Street Journal and Time magazine, where he is still a contributing writer. His magazine stories have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s and other publications.

Larson has taught non-fiction writing at San Francisco State, the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, and the University of Oregon, and has spoken to audiences from coast to coast. He lives in Seattle with his wife, three daughters, a dwarf hamster, a Chinese fighting fish, and a golden retriever named Molly.”


  1. So you know that I just don’t LOVE the nonfiction like most of my bloggy friends- but I’ve been keeping an eye on the nonfiction November- because sometimes there are books that slip past me that I MIGHT be interested in reading.

    I so enjoyed the quotes you chose to highlight!

  2. I can’t TELL you how long this book has been on my “to read” list, but I’ve not gotten to it yet. I loved your review and I’m definitely moving it up the list. I just MUST! –Lisa

    1. It’s a tough one to get through, it’s just so long and detailed. But I did enjoy it overall in the end, and loved all the little trivia I learned along the way. It really was such a pivotal event! Hope you enjoy it!

  3. I cannot rave enough about this book! I absolutely adored it, for both men that were highlighted. I also was enthralled with all the trivia details and have a new appreciation for the city of Chicago. I am so glad to hear that you enjoyed it as well!!

  4. Yep, I could see Leo playing the lead.
    Although the book is praised as a great work of literary non fiction, if i remember correctly, there were times when i get quite bogged down by it. True, the setting and the story are fascinating, but i seem to remember something that kept taking me away from the main story.

    1. Yes, I agree that it was tough to get through some of the meticulous detail but I kept plugging along since I read this for my book club. The detail may have been overkill in some places, but I still did enjoy the story and history. It certainly wasn’t a book that I breezed straight through and couldn’t put down, it took me all month to read it. Overall though I enjoyed it and learned quite a bit. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with me fellow Tanya 🙂

    1. I like those kind of books where you like it more as time passes. I think that’s why it took me so long to write the review, I kept thinking about the story and I had so many different thoughts on it. I had a hard time getting through it too as you could tell from our Book Blogger G+ community where everyone else was moving on to other books and I kept saying I was STILL reading Devil. It took me all month for this one book but in the end I did enjoy the history and was fascinated and disgusted that the serial killer was like that. That is true Leo has the charm to play Dr. Holmes, Holmes was quite a charismatic ladies man in the book. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with me Allison.

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