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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A story about great architects (and project management for dummies)
The book tells the story behind the World Fair in Chicago in 1893. It alternates between two story lines: the one of the serial killer Holmes, and the one of the organizers of the fair with the architect Daniel Burnham as the protagonist. It is very well researched - see the impressive list of references at the back - which was a major attraction point for me. The author...
Published on 23 Oct 2007 by Stijn Kelchtermans

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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A halfway devilish read
I read Rick Geary's "Beast of Chicago", an excellent comic book on the life of H. H. Holmes a few years ago and while Geary's book presented Holmes' case in detail, I wanted to read more about his time in the "murder castle" before he was caught. Erik Larson's "The Devil in the White City" was suggested and I picked it up. Having read it, I was disappointed that there...
Published 23 months ago by Sam Quixote


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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A story about great architects (and project management for dummies), 23 Oct 2007
By 
Stijn Kelchtermans (Antwerp, Belgium) - See all my reviews
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The book tells the story behind the World Fair in Chicago in 1893. It alternates between two story lines: the one of the serial killer Holmes, and the one of the organizers of the fair with the architect Daniel Burnham as the protagonist. It is very well researched - see the impressive list of references at the back - which was a major attraction point for me. The author even clarifies which of the (few) elements in the story were unverifiable and thus pure fiction. Scientists will love this. The underlying research never gets in the way of the story though (hooray).

I was captivated by the look behind the scenes: how the Chicago won the organization of the fair, the subsequent delays in setting up an organizing team and the disasters during the building of the Fair's buildings and exhibitions. It shows how even those to be considered the best in their field don't realize major achievements without their deal of stress and problem solving (and being extremely pragmatic when deadlines come close). In fact, this book is a must-read for project managers and entrepreneurs alike.

As far as the killings of Dr. Holmes are concerned, a Belgian cannot help but see the striking parallels with the Dutroux case about 100 years later, such as building a house specifically designed to kill unnoticedly (remember Dutroux' cellar where he hid the little girls). Also the debate on the faulty functioning of the police force in the aftermath of the killings bears a close resemblance to the Belgian case. Some things never change.

If you're interested in Chicago, architecture and want to read an upbeat story on how sound ambition leads to landmark achievements (& how it doesn't come easy), read this book.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Turning to the darkside in Chicago, 8 Sep 2005
By 
I. Curry "IDC" (London, UK) - See all my reviews
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A hugely enjoyable, readable and informative book on a subject that would not necessarily sell itself from the bookshelves.
The Devil in the White City is a history of the bidding, creation and construction of the Chicago World Fair 1893, the Columbine Festival in honour of the 500th anniversary of Columbus's discovery of the new world. Much attention was focused on the largest cities in the USA as they vied for the honour of hosting the world fair. In the end Chicago is victorious, and the city elects one of its own most successful sons to be the lead architect.
On the dark side on this balanced, Tao-like book is the story of Dr H.H. Holmes. This gentleman has the dubious honour of being America's first recorded serial killer. His 'career' mirrored the construction at the world fair, and of course took place just a stones throw from the festival's building site. It reached its apogee as the country's attention was focused on Chicago, and the details would shock a still nave country.
Erik Larson is a spectacularly lucid writer. One imagines that whatever he turns his pen to will come out as gold plated as this. Whilst it might seem that the machinations over the building of a world fair over 100 years ago would not survive as a matter of interest, Larson proves that a book is as interesting as the person telling the story. Larson uses key historical details, diaries, letters, weather reports and newspapers to evoke a complete world and bygone age. He tells us of the moods, health conditions and character of the people involved and even whether they would have been rained or shone on by careful dredging of meteorological records.
An example of the gloriously pleasing phraseology is his description of various meals which the worthies of the city treated themselves to. After reproducing the menu in its entirety, Larson notes wryly that it was a wonder that the city's leading dignatories had working arteries at all. In a a similar vein Larson wonders whether the plan for an extending, pneumatic tower should have featured a bordello rather than the planned café.
It is in switching between the two stories, that of destruction and creation, building and cruelty, wonder and death that the book really wins. There is an amazing pace fashioned out of the knowledge that both stories are hurtling to vastly different end points - worldwide success for the fair and the discovery of Holmes's brutal crimes. Accompanied by the forensic eye for research and detail, a silken writing style and a story of fascinating personalities it is certain that this book is one of the best narrative histories I have had the pleasure to read. I am going to enjoy seeing if his subsequent books are as readable.
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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Courtesy of Teens Read Too, 13 Aug 2007
By 
TeensReadToo "Eat. Drink. Read. Be Merrier." (All Over the US & Canada) - See all my reviews
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In 1893, Chicago was gearing up for its shining moment on the international stage. The city had been selected to host the World's Fair, beating out New York and a number of other American contenders. A prominent local architect, Daniel Burnham, had taken the reins to organize and construct the massive project. He assembled a dream team of architects, landscapers, engineers, and other professionals to help pull the fair together. Certainly Chicago could outdo the Paris Fair, which had been a worldwide success years earlier.

Unfortunately for Burnham and his team, everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. Due to a lack of organization and bickering among the committees responsible for the fair, construction began far later than it should have. Partially completed buildings blew over and burned down. Union workers threatened strikes. One sideshow act showed up a year early, while another (which was believed to be made up of cannibals) killed the man sent to retrieve them and never showed up at all. And there was a monster on the loose. A man who used the chaos of Chicago at this time in history to conceal the murders of dozens of people - many of them young, single women. A man who constructed a building with stolen money, then used the building as a slaughterhouse to lure, kill, and dispose of his victims.

THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY is a terrific book. It is nonfiction, but it reads like a novel. The real-life details of this story seem almost too bizarre to be true, yet this is one example of the old saying that "truth is stranger than fiction." The author, Erik Larson, even includes a lengthy section at the back where he documents his facts and explains his suppositions.

The book's chapters alternate between the World's Fair and the exploits of serial killer, Dr. H.H. Holmes. I found myself enjoying both stories, as they ran parallel throughout the book. The Herculean task of putting together the fair in record time was fascinating, and the sociopathic actions of Dr. Holmes were chilling. It made for a brilliant contrast - just when the frustrations of the Fair seemed overwhelming, the book switched to Dr. Holmes as he lured yet another young woman into his web. And just when Dr. Holmes' evil seemed too much to bear, the chapter would end and the reader would be back at the World's Fair dealing with political back stabbing, instead of Holmes' more literal variety.

I rarely read nonfiction, but this book came highly recommended to me, so I gave it a try. I'm so glad I did, too. It offers a wonderful historical perspective on Chicago and the world near the close of the 19th century. For a Chicago-area native like me, its frequent mentions of famous local names, like Burnham and Adler and Marshall Field, that still grace street signs and the sides of buildings, were an added treat. Just a brief word of warning, though: it does contain some of the dreaded "adult themes." Some of Dr. Holmes' crimes are described - although not too graphically - and they might be upsetting for "younger or more sensitive" readers.

I strongly recommend THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY to anyone who enjoys an engrossing, well-written story, whether they normally read fiction or nonfiction. In particular, if readers have a book report in school, this book should be considered. It makes history come alive.

Reviewed by: K. Osborn Sullivan
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Amazing tale of a master architect and a serial killer, 27 Feb 2006
This extraordinary portrayal of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair is told through the lens of its famous architect, Daniel H. Burnham, and its infamous opportunist, H.H. Holmes. These two men left an indelible mark on the World’s Fair. Burnham’s vision was expansive and lives through these pages. It’s quite amazing to realize people like Susan B. Anthony, Mark Twain, Helen Keller, Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Edison, and others were there at the same time. The story of Holmes is equally fascinating. How he was able to dispose of the bodies, swindle people out of their money, and get away with murder for so long illustrates his clever understanding of late 19th century’s social norms. The decision to tell the tale of the World’s Fair through the lives of these two men is flawless. My only criticism is that I wish there were more pictures in the book. I wanted to see the Ferris wheel and people enjoying the different parts of the fair.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars evocative of an era, 29 Sep 2003
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This sparcely and beautifully written book transports the reader to a world of collisions. The end of the 19th century forms the setting for an (unbelievabley) true story of the chicago world fair and the serial killer who haunted it. The picture painted of the rise of modernity (litereally in the form of skyscapers) clashing with the past - creating a vaccum of naivety into which Holmes lures his victims, is so real that it in may ways echoes the unsteadyness of the world today.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A halfway devilish read, 16 Sep 2012
By 
Sam Quixote - See all my reviews
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I read Rick Geary's "Beast of Chicago", an excellent comic book on the life of H. H. Holmes a few years ago and while Geary's book presented Holmes' case in detail, I wanted to read more about his time in the "murder castle" before he was caught. Erik Larson's "The Devil in the White City" was suggested and I picked it up. Having read it, I was disappointed that there wasn't much more detail on Holmes and his eerie hotel. Here was a place where a man had created a hotel that had corridors that led to nowhere, rooms that had gas chambers, chutes that led from rooms to the cellar where the industrial size oven sat... the murder castle was an insane mind made into architecture. Holmes hired numerous contractors and fired them after working on part of the structure before hiring more contractors, so only he had a full idea of the layout of the building.

Much like Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood", Larson has written a nonfiction story in the style of a novel. The overall effect is highly compelling - at least for half the book. The only reason I picked up the book was my interest in the Holmes murders, I wasn't that interested in the World's Fair/Burnham side to the book. I feel that if Larson had stuck to the murders in the way Capote wrote solely about the murders in his book, "White City" would be a five star read for me. As it is, I felt that the book was overlong and found myself skipping to the chapters featuring Holmes rather than reading more about Burnham's problems delivering the Fair within budget and on time. Architecture isn't that interesting to read about, even for a spectacle like the White City and the World's Fair and if this book were about just that, I wouldn't have picked this up; on the flipside, if this were solely about Holmes, I would definitely have picked this up.

The best part of the book is in the last 50 pages when Larson turns his focus solely upon Holmes. Holmes is arrested (on insurance fraud of all things!) and its found out that he murdered his colleague whom he had taken out a life insurance policy on. Then it's discovered that his colleague's children were in Holmes' care and that they were now missing. The Pinkerton detective, Frank Geyer, goes hunting for the missing children, unearthing a bizarre and dark journey Holmes and his wards took until the grisly end.

Holmes' case is fascinating for numerous reasons and makes this book worth reading alone. His strange life, his motivations, his genius for evasion (not only did he evade the Chicago PD, the Chicago Police Chief, when he was a young lawyer, had actually represented Holmes in court!), the building he created to perfect his murdering methods, and the unknown number of victims he killed, all make Holmes a morbidly interesting figure of history. Larson does a fine job of bringing this monster to life on the page even if Holmes remains an enigma to the end. "The Devil in the White City" is worth reading for the H. H. Holmes chapters, but the Daniel Burnham/World's Fair chapters don't match them for intensity or interest - at least for me.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An Entertaining and Informative Read, 3 July 2004
By 
Bruce Kendall "BEK" (Southern Pines, NC) - See all my reviews
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Erik Larson does a bang-up job of conveying what life must have been like in the "Second City" as the 19th century drew to its fitful conclusion. Bristling at the constant reminder of New York City's superiority in so many areas, Chicago's city fathers rallied the troops and went all out in proving to New Yorkers, to the nation and to the world that Chicago was equal to the great challenge of mounting a World Exposition of truly monumental stature. Larson's descriptions of the Herculean effort put forth by numerous architects, builders, politicians, etc. lead the reader to a true appreciation of these "can do," spirited individuals.
Yet beneath the teeming activity and a short distance away from the gleaming white Pleasure Palaces of the Fair, there stood a building of a different sort entirely, inhabited by one of the most vicious, truly evil creatures the young nation ever produced. Larson does an adequate, but not great job of telling the darker story surrounding H H Holmes, the mesmeric Svengali whose brilliant blue eyes and engaging charm seduced at least a score (one estimate was up to 200, which the author disputes) unfortunate women. Unlike Jack the Ripper, to whom he was later likened, he didn't limit himself to female victims. Business partners who had outworn their usefulness and several children were amongst his prey, as well. He just had a penchant for murder.
The sections on the construction of the Columbia Exposition are filled with fascinating anecdotes, ranging from the origins of the sobriquet "windy city (derisively coined by Charles Anderson Dana, Editor of The New York Sun)" to the dramatic entrance of Annie Oakley, barreling in on horseback and blazing away with her two six-shooters in Buffalo Bill Cody's Western Show adjacent to the Fair Grounds. Larson also provides an interesting side story surrounding Patrick Predergast, a delusional political aspirant who turns assassin. He paints a compelling portrait of Fredrick Law Olmstead, American History's premier landscape architect who took up the almost impossible task of designing and overseeing the Exposition's parks and lagoons. The hero of the book, however, is Daniel Hudson Burnham, who was ultimately responsible for the lion's share of the planning, construction and smooth running of the entire enterprise. He had a little over two years from the time Congress selected Chicago from a list of candidate cities that included Saint Louis and New York, to the day of the Expo's official opening. That he got the job done within the alloted time is one of the great marvels in an age of marvels, especially given the myriad difficulties which he and his crew had to overcome.
The Holmes narractive appears a bit lackluster in comparison to the story of the Fair's construction. Larson acknowledges the difficulty he faced in recreating Holmes' vicious crimes via imaginary vignettes. He states in an afterword that he went back and read Capote's IN COLD BLOOD for the technique in which Capote so brilliantly engaged in his imaginative reconstruction of events. The only problem with this approach is that Capote had access to and the confidence of the two killers that are at the center of IN COLD BLOOD. Larson had only newspaper accounts from the period as well as a very unreliable journal that Holmes wrote after he was tried and sentenced to death (he was hanged several months after the trial). It would appear that Larson goes a bit too far out of his way to avoid the lurid and sensationalitic aspects of Holmes' killing spree. One has only to visit some of the numerous web sites devoted to Holmes to see that Larson is particularly reticent to discuss Holmes' sexual deviance. This is understandable, as Larson wants to be taken seriously as an historian, yet the facts are out there (most of them well documented) so it wouldn't have hurt to have included a bit more of the darker details. The book could also have used more illustrations. The Chicago Tribune, at the time the story first broke in 1894, included a detailed floor plan of the "Chamber of Horrors" Holmes built on the corner of Sixty-Third and Wallace in the Englewood section of Chicago. That illustration would have given the reader a better sense of the bizarre layout of the structure. More pictures of the Exposition would have also been helpful. Here again, there are several sites on the web devoted to the Columbia Exposition that have many pages of great photographs.
The books virtues far outweigh its shortcomings and I have no problem in recommending THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY to anyone interested in US History, Chicago Architecture, or just a well told story.
BEK
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Baffling and confused, 1 Sep 2013
By 
John Fitzpatrick (So Paulo, Brazil) - See all my reviews
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The is an odd book that tells the story of the World Fair held in Chicago in 1893 and the deeds of a mass criminal - "serial killer" in today's jargon - who was active there at the time.

Apart from the fact that the killer built a hotel to profit from the Fair and lure women guests whom he would exploit and murder, there seems to be nothing in common with the two events.

On one hand, we have a description of the planners, architects, engineers etc who created the Fair and, on the other, an account of the murderer's deeds.

The author makes no attempt to understand why the criminal committed such horrible murders in which the victims were usually young women and children.

He also interlaces the story with a superficial account of a mentally confused man who assassinated the mayor of Chicago during the Fair.

The book is also not very well written and, overall, is a rather baffling read.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Should have been a lot more devil and a lot less white city, 10 Dec 2012
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I bought this novel on the promise of a horror-thrill of the 'Wipper stwikes again in Whitechapowl!' variety. I was disappointed.

In my opinion, this novel really could have used a good editor. It is at least 100 pages too long. I have nothing against Chicago, or the Worlds fair of 1893, and indeed, some of the history was interesting (the invention of the Ferris Wheel, for example). However, I am a busy man, and there are things I'd rather be doing than reading about the minutiae of the personal lives of the fair's organisers. Do we really need to know what was on the menu when some architects had dinner together in the 1890s? Or the constant updates on the fair's daily attendance numbers?

There isn't all that much about the serial killer, Dr Holmes. Kudos to the author for not wallowing in gruesome detail, but I wanted to read a novel about a serial killer, not a fair.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Truth proves to be darker than fiction in this true crime book, 8 Jun 2012
By 
John Milton (Glasgow, Scotland) - See all my reviews
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Having heard the news that The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson was being adapted for the big screen, I was thoroughly intrigued by the premise behind the book after finding out that it was an account of the activities of serial killer Dr H.H.Holmes in Chicago of the late 1800's. I HAD to read this book before they made the film.

This book was most certainly a revelation to me. Not only did it reveal Chicago of the 1890's to be a murky place similar to Victorian London: dirty, full of squalor, where deprivation and criminality thrives; but also by being an ideal hunting ground for a serial killer whose crimes dwarf those of Jack the Ripper.

The real horror about this book is that this is not fiction, this is a true story, compiled from historically known facts, records, letters, commentaries and biographies. Holmes was a truly cold, devious and calculating man, whose construction of his "Murder Castle", comprised of gas chambers, hidden passageways, dissection tables, acid pits, furnaces, windowless rooms; all made up to look like a hotel, beggars belief. If I had not known that these were real events, then I would have thought it entirely implausible that someone could construct such a place in a busy city without attracting the attention of the authorities.

Larson's work here is obviously very well researched and is awash with figures from America's history who undoubtedly shaped its future and is peppered with other events that make the 1890's seem to be a brave new world with regular advances in technology and new discoveries. Larson sets a nice contrast for the reader by effectively utilising chapters to switch between the story of Burnham (the architect), showing the struggle to make the Chicago World's Fair a success; and Holmes (the killer) and the very dark world he inhabited of his own creation.

Critically, The Devil in the White City can be very fact heavy at times, rendering it dry at points. Additionally, much of the book is devoted to the tale of Burnham and his efforts, with some of the chapters on Holmes being considerably lighter; and as such, may not satisfy the reader seeking out a tome that is pure horror and/or real-life crime.

The Devil in the White City does not sit comfortably, strictly speaking, in the horror genre; but I would suggest that it is worthy of a read, especially if you are interested in true crime and have an interest in history.
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