I listened to The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson for my book group.
About the Book:
In 1893, Chicago hosted an extravagant World’s Fair, nicknamed the White City. A monumental undertaking, the grounds were constructed in under two years, utilizing countless laborers and going so far as to import entire families and even a whole village from other parts of the world. The man in charge of the entire project was Chicago architect Daniel H. Burnham.
While the World’s Fair was under construction, a man who went by the alias H.H. Holmes had set up shop nearby. Underneath his unbelievably charming exterior, Holmes was a serial killer, going about his gruesome activities undetected for far too long.
Though the stories of Burnham and Homes have little in common beyond the time and place they occurred, The Devil in the White City tells the tales in parallel, interspersing chapters of each. Also told is the story of the lunatic who assassinated Chicago’s mayor, Carter Harrison, around the same time, and the entire package is bookended by the Titanic disaster nearly 20 years later.
The Devil in the White City is one of those books I’ve been meaning to read for quite some time. I’d heard enough good things to be excited about finally reading it. I already had enough print commitments for the month, so I chose to listen to Larson’s book. Unfortunately, I think this choice, ended up reducing my enjoyment of The Devil in the White City, which I’ll get to in a moment.
Larson really did pack a lot of interesting information into his book. He chronicles the building of the Fair, of course, and spends a little time with each of the Fair’s main players. He also introduces the reader to several of Holmes’s victims before revealing their fates. And then he threw in Harrison’s assassin and the Titanic disaster for good measure. Despite all the stories, I never felt like there was too much going on, and for the most part Larson does a nice job reminding the reader who’s who in the vast sea of historical figures. Larson also succeeds at conveying the scope of the undertaking.
There were moments when I did feel the story dragged. Most often those parts had to do with the Fair’s construction, which was a bit heavy on drier facts and forever progressing a bit only to run into some setback, always with the deadline looming closer. Had I read the book, my group members pointed out, I could have skimmed the slower parts instead of listening to them in full, and I think that would have helped. It also would have allowed me to flip back and remind myself how different people and situations were connected.
My favorite part of The Devil in the White City was seeing the impact the Chicago World’s Fair had on the course of history. Did you know Shredded Wheat was first introduced at the Fair? Or that Walt Disney’s father attended, as did Helen Keller and Theodore Dreiser? Or how about that Mark Twain traveled to Chicago but fell ill and left before he actually saw the Fair? Buffalo Bill Cody, denied a spot in the Fair itself, set up his tent outside and drew at least as many visitors as the Fair itself. The Fair also helped shape the direction of American architecture, among many other things.
My biggest issue with The Devil in the White City on audio was the narrator. The version I listened to was read by Scott Brick. It was my first experience with Brick’s narration, and though I know many people love his audiobooks, I can’t say I’ll be running out to pick another up any time soon. He read so lethargically that it almost sounded like he was falling asleep, and I found myself constantly losing the thread of the story. I finally began listening to the recording at double speed, something I’ve only done once before but which succeeded in bringing the narration up to something like normal speed. A fellow book group member listened to an abridged production by Tony Goldwyn and was much happier!