Review: The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson (a grumpy review)

What? You say this post showed up in your reader several weeks ago? I have no idea what you’re talking about.

My friend the Enthusiast refuses to join work book club because he says we read bad things. As proof of this he says “Devil in the White City was big like six years ago. And you’re just reading it now? Come on! You have to keep up with the times!” In fact the reason I didn’t read The Devil in the White City when it was big was that I was worried about that thing, that hype thing that happens where everyone loves a book really really hard so your expectations of it are sky-high and then you read it and you’re like, “…That’s it?”

(This is why all my comments on any post anyone writes these days about maybe wanting to give Patrick Ness a try are like, “OH YAY! But don’t expect too much. THE CHAOS WALKING BOOKS ARE SO GREAT but they aren’t that great, they are basically a big pile of reindeer poop OH MY GOD THEY ARE SO THOUGHT-PROVOKING AND MINDBLOWING except only a bit, really not anything to write home about.” Try it. Mention on a blog post that you’re going to try reading The Knife of Never Letting Go, and the above comment is what you will inevitably get from me.)

So The Devil in the White City is about two guys at the Chicago World’s Fair: Daniel Burnham the architect of it, and Dr. H. H. Holmes, a serial killer operative around the same time. The World’s Fair was very expensive and hard to build. Dr. Holmes killed many people, some of them during World’s Fair times. And he like baked them in an oven. (Ew.)

I thought I wasn’t going to like this because American history mostly bores me (sorry, America!), but it turns out I didn’t like it because I did not find it to be a very good book of history. When I was writing notes for this post, I wrote down “Devil AND the White City ha ha ha,” which was to remind me to make the very scathing remark that a more appropriate title would have been The Devil and the White City, because the White City parts about Burnham’s efforts to make the World’s Fair happen were only fairly tangentially related to the Devil parts about Dr. Holmes killing people. In the event, that…is not as scathing a remark as I would have liked. The two halves of the story are almost wholly unconnected! was the critical point I was trying to make. Both halves are interesting(ish), but there’s no real reason to put them in the same book. If I were in charge of the world, I’d have the author write a really good journal article about both.

Because another problem I had was how relentlessly padded with description the entire book was. Larson never just launches into the events of a given day. He always has to start with all (NB this is a made-up quote), “It was a warm October day as Daniel Burnham crossed the town square to meet with his investors. The sound of horse-drawn carriages on the cobbled Chicago streets almost drowned out the pounding of Burnham’s heart as his broadsheets and architectural plans flapped in the gentle fall breeze.” Blah blah damn dee blah. A teeny bit of this is okay, I guess, but it irritates me. Every time it happened — and it happened a lot — I’d be all, “Oh really. Really, Erik Larson. Did the horse hooves drown out the sound of his heart pounding? You were there to chat with him about this, were you, really?” (This was internal monologue, btw. I did not burst out into cranky soliloquoy on the subway.)

Then there was this other thing that Erik Larson kept doing that drove me crazy, which was this thing, GOD it was annoying, where he would be like, “Later that month, Olmstead fired a junior associate at his firm who had dared to suggest that regular architecture was more sexier to the populace than landscape architecture. The junior associate started his own architecture firm, which quickly grew to three times the size of Olmstead’s. Later he would say that being fired for his sexy-architecture opinions had launched his whole career. That junior associate was Frank Lloyd Wright.” And you basically can see Erik Larson in your head doing that gesture and sound effect to indicate that he has just dropped a bombshell on you, while his orchestra plays a dramatic dun dun DUNNNNNNN noise in the background. The example of this where he introduces the Ferris Wheel into the proceedings spanned more than one chapter. He refers to George Washington Gale Ferris of Ferris Wheels as “the young man from Illinois” like forty times before consenting to admit who the guy actually is. After time three, I wanted to gnaw off my fingers.

I don’t think I did fall victim to the hype thing, however. I never expected to like this book much. At best I mildly hoped not to hate it. Which I didn’t, I guess, but I found it boring and irritating. I don’t like American history, y’all! I don’t know what else to say. I don’t like reading about American history. Oo, except the Black Panthers, they were interesting. And also the Scopes trial. But nothing else.

26 thoughts on “Review: The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson (a grumpy review)

  1. Well, you said you didn’t like “true crime stories” back when I read this one in 2010. I did think it added to our trip to the science museum in Chicago. There’s a park here that I still haven’t gone back to since the details about our own hometown murderer came out.

    • Hahahaha, and I was right! Actually this could have been true-crimier than it was and I might have enjoyed it more. At book club we all complained that we didn’t hear enough about the murders. Which were long enough ago not to be upsetting.

  2. Ok, so *I* like American history (being a patriot, unlike some people) and I like true crime, but I still have never been able to finish this book. Because yeah. Give me fiction or non-fiction; do not try your weirdass mixture of them.

    I WAS kind of excited to visit the Presbyterian church that John Root designed (Lakeview Pres). It’s suuuuper-gay now because it’s in the heart of Boystown (sorry, John). When I visited, one of the worship songs was seriously ‘The Rainbow Connection.’ No, sirs. No.

    ALSO….I might be done. I am not a fan of this book. But I do like reading about H.H. Holmes.

    • *cough*probablyasunshinepatriot*cough*

      BOOM. See that? Bringing the Paine. (Yes, I said that. I said it and I’m not sorry.)

      Where else may I read about HH Holmes? And you are so wrong to say no sirs to the singing of “Rainbow Connection” in church. It would be weird in a Catholic church but seems totally reasonable to my extremely vague notions of what Presbyterian churches are like.

  3. I feel the need to write a post solely for the purposes of gaining said Ness-related comment :p Having recently had a similar issue with titles I think I’d understand your reasoning even if you hadn’t given it. It’s strange how sometimes a title can be just a little off.

    Both the writing elements you mention would annoy me no end.

  4. This review made me laugh, and I do love to laugh. I liked The Devil in the White City because I’m from the Chicago area. That said, if Larson mentioned one more damned ornamental grass I think my head would have exploded.

      • Yes! Actually, the building that houses the Museum of Science and Industry is housed inside one of the buildings that was done for the fair. They have an exhibit called “Yesterday’s Main Street” that captures that era’s storefronts and cobblestones. It’s got an ice cream shop and a silent movie theater and might be my favorite place on the planet. (Which, honestly, after learning its association with this book makes me look at the story through rose colored glasses…)

  5. Jenny, your reviews and insights are so hilarious that I am always trying to find people to email your review when I can, in this case, my husband. I have avoided this book for much the same same reason that you didn’t like it, but right now, I am in such an escapist and book devouring mood that this one doesn’t sound half bad. I need some Patrick Ness! Stat!

  6. I wish you did rule the world! Every time I see an Eric Larson book, I’m interested in the non-crime topic, but not the crime topic, so I don’t pick them up and I never learn about the not-crime part.

    But your review makes me feel a little better about missing out on the White City.

  7. I did like this book, but I was aggravated that the two plots didn’t tie together. I suspected that he really wanted to write about the World’s Fair but needed a serial killer to make the topic more titillating or something.

    • Ooo, excellent point. I said at book club that it seemed like he had the material for two unrelated but interesting articles, and put them together and spun them out a lot to make a book.

  8. You hit on the reason why I will never join a bookclub. I am so over reading things I don’t want to that are not law. Law I’m pretty over it too, but I recognize that sometimes I have to venture out of my comfort areas and read cases on issues outside of my specialty areas.

    • I tried to find a GIF for it but WordPress freaked out and I gave up after minimal effort was expended. I was going to put a GIF of Ben Wyatt from Parks and Rec. Oh well.

  9. I have a mild disagreement with your coworker who refuses to join book club. It’s funny because I often dislike book clubs as they almost EXCLUSIVELY only read new, hyped up books. But yours seems to be willing to go back in time, too, which I appreciate.

    While I don’t remember this book enough to comment, I TOO hate when authors of non-fiction get all description-y about things they can’t know, such as the beating of hearts and the character disliking the weather, etc. HOW DO YOU KNOW? Do not lie to me, supposed purveyor of facts.

    • Yes! Exactly! My coworker who won’t join book club can be sort of dogmatic, although he is nice mostly.

      Also yes to the “supposed purveyor of facts” remark. Very cutting epithet! And true. If they will make up stuff about the weather how can I trust them about anything else?

  10. I actually really liked this one (despite my un-love of American history (and me with a history degree)). But his latest? The one whose title I have blocked from my memory? Oh my god was that ever painful.

  11. I’m getting whiplash from reading good reviews and not so good reviews on this book and me deciding YES-to read and then NO-avoid. I do love Chicago, I liked OK the one Larsen book I read (can’t recall the title!) and I actually do love history – architectural history even. Maybe someday I will tackle this book.
    I have DNF’d book club books. I couldn’t get through The Paris Wife.

    • The architectural stuff was interesting! I liked reading about how Frederick Olmsted was trying to get everything sorted out, but the other people on the project were slowing him up and he was like, BUT MY LANDSCAPE!

  12. Just read this book and I’m glad to find a review I agree with. No Erik Larson, I don’t want to read a list of plants that the landscape architect picked out, or a page-long menu from the restaurant where they ate. Also, please don’t even name unimportant characters that you’ll never mention elsewhere in the book.

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