The Devil in the White City

History and fiction buffs unite! Though this book is purely historical, it is written like a novel. Who would have known that reading about the architecture of the extinct Chicago World Fair would be such a page-turner? Larson does a magnificent job at connecting many pieces of history to this one brief moment in time, when America awakened to its grandest potential.

There’s something about America’s past that makes me well up inside. When I see movies like The Majestic where all the townspeople are lined up outside the brightly-lit movie theater, or in The Music Man when the locals all gather at the center of town to dance the night away with their sweethearts, twirling, spinning, and twirling underneath multi-colored hanging lanterns, and fireworks exploding up above in the night sky, something in me cries out for the return of America’s glory days. The Devil in the White CIty does a marvelous job at recreating America’s prime, and the author never bores when describing the pure-white city as bright as Heaven itself, and so majestic that the Court of Honor alone brought grown men to tears upon seeing it.

True, part of this book is about a serial killer, but Larson, does not go into any gory detail, and handles the grim topic with care and tact. There are two murder scenes, but they are intended to convey fact rather than fear, and they pass by quickly enough. The murderer is not in contact with his victims, which may ease the tension for some readers. Aside from that, there is a brief mention of Jack the Ripper toward the beginning of the book that is a bit unsettling. I give these disclaimers because I know there are sensitive readers who may prefer to stay away from certain topics. I really wish books came with ratings and disclaimers like the movies.

Here is an excerpt from the book:

One of the delights of the fair was never knowing who might turn up beside you at the chocolate Venus de Milo or at the hearse exhibit or under the barrel of Krupp’s monster, or who might sit at the table next to yours at the Big Tree Restaurant or the Philadelphia Cafe or the Great White Horse Inn, a reproduction of the public house described by Dickens in The Pickwick Papers; or who might suddenly clutch your arm aboard the Ferris Wheel as your car began its ascent. Archduke Francis roamed the grounds incognito – but much preferred the vice districts of Chicago. Indians who had once used hatchets to bare the skulls of white men drifted over from Buffalo Bill’s compound, as did Annie Oakley and assorted Cossacks, Husars, Lancers, and the members of the U.S. Sixth Cavalry on temporary furlough to become actors in Colonel Cody’s [Buffalo Bill’s] show. Chief Standing Bear rode the Ferris Wheel in full ceremonial headdress, his two hundred feathers unruffled. Other Indians rode the enameled wooden horses of the Midway carousel. 

There were Paderewski, Houdini, Tesla, Edison, Joplin, Darrow, a Princeton professor named Woodrow Wilson, and a sweet old lady in black summer silk flowered with forget-me-not-blue named Susan B. Anthony. Burnham [the central architect] met Teddy Roosevelt for lunch. For years after the fair Burnham used the exclamation, “Bully!” Diamond Jim Brady dined with Lillian Russell and indulged his passion for sweet corn.

No one saw Twain. He came to Chicago to see the fair but got sick and spent eleven days in his hotel room, then left without ever seeing the White City. 

Of all people. 

Suspense seekers and history buffs, you all ought to check this book out. It’s a lot of fun and very fascinating. And you will walk away with a deeper appreciation of the roots of America’s greatness, and why we are still the greatest country in the world 120 years later.

Also, how has this not been made into a movie? I hope Peter Jackson or Ron Howard are just waiting for the screenplay.

Published by Andrew Toy

Writer when I'm not being a husband or dad. So mostly just a husband and dad.

12 thoughts on “The Devil in the White City

  1. This was a great book and I couldn’t put it down. I especially loved how the author took the two completely different story lines – the building of the World’s Fair and the serial killings, and intertwined them so seamlessly. Fabulous writing and I loved the history in it!


  2. Read the book a while back (not long after you recommended it, along with Dan Barry’s THE LONGEST GAME [which I also read and enjoyed thoroughly]). Good comments. Thanks for sharing!


  3. Wow – will certainly have to pick this up and check it out. Thanks for posting about it. I wouldn’t have heard of it otherwise.


  4. This was an especially favorite read because I was living in Hyde Park (south side of Chicago) while I was reading it. How often do you get the experience of reading a book (that reads like amazing fiction) and regularly driving through the physical place where it all happened! It was beyond cool for a nerd like me.


  5. I’ve come across many book recommendations. This is the first time I’ve actually read the book previously. It really is a great book! ….although I have to admit, I only read every other chapter. I thought the chapters detailing the planning behind the World’s Fair were way too dry. But I definitely second this recommendation.


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