Book Club Review: Devil in the White City

I feel like there’s this impression that people who read a lot are smarter or that reading is on a much more elevated plane of intelligence than watching TV or like pursuits. While this certainly can be true, there are some reads out there that would give the Kardashians a run for their trashy money. I guess the act of reading engages your brain in a way watching TV doesn’t. Anyway, my long-winded point is there are times when reading feels indulgent, and I worry that my brain is turning to mush as I devour page after page of Lannisters and Starks. So, I try to balance my consumption of fiction with a healthy helping of history. I have a sort of informal agreement with myself to read one non-fiction for every 2-5 fiction books.

My even longer-winded point is that I just finished Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City which covers, among a few other temporal topics, the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition (World’s Fair) as well as H.H. Holmes “murder mansion.”

I was drawn to the book because of the World’s Fair, but the murder mansion kept me reading. At first, Larson’s style bugged me because he likes to put the reader inside the head’s of the historical figures he profiles. I found it sort of presumptuous and felt like it detracted from the gravitas usually associated with non-fiction. Then I realized that was kinda stupid. Non-fiction can be informative and colorful.

I’m really fascinated by the gilded age, and I didn’t know a lot about Chicago’s history prior to the 20th century going into this book. I felt like I was able to learn a lot in an easily digestible manner. Larson did a great job of providing just enough detail about auxiliary figures that you could appreciate their significance to the story but didn’t feel bogged down by facts.

As for the murder mansion, it’s not really for the faint of heart. Larson mentions in his afterword that he used Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood as a reference for how to write crime scenes from a killer’s perspective. I haven’t read In Cold Blood, but I after reading Larson’s take on it, I don’t think I’d have the stomach. Larson alternates between putting the reader in Holme’s and his victim’s heads, and it is creepy. I couldn’t read this book before bed.

If you’re looking to get a general understanding of Chicago (and America really) at the turn of the last century while remaining totally engrossed in a true crime thriller, this is an excellent read!

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