An extraordinary thing about Erik Larson’s “The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America” is that the novel is entirely comprised of true events; if it was not included in the note before the first chapter begins, nobody would believe it to be true. In the following 390 pages, the story that unfolds is based wholly on an intricate and vast collection of letters, newspaper articles, diary entries, memoirs and any other written works that Larson was able to get his hands on. Despite the skin crawling and sometimes borderline otherworldly events that take place in the novel, it is a work of non-fiction.
This means a couple of things for anyone who picks up “The Devil in the White City”, one of them being that you will get to learn some American history through your read. Unfortunately, sometimes the intricate historical story sometimes gets confused with the simultaneous telling of another, much darker plot. This is where things become complicated. Larson’s detailed description of events is impeccable, but when it comes time to follow the story of a serial killer that haunts along the borderlines of these events things become a little confused.
Although the timeline of the mass murderer’s, H. H. Holmes’, killings is fairly accurate, the actual description, and knowledge of, his actions is not well known. In fact, it is apparently extremely approximated knowledge at best. In contrast to the particular and finely detailed history of the World’s Fair, as well as its architectural accomplishments, the chapters that switch back to the serial killer’s side of things seems to be more dubious in contrast.
Despite the sometimes awkward relationship between Chicago’s history and H. H. Holmes, the stories that unfold in this book are extraordinary in themselves. Without giving too much away, these are the moments where the “magic” in the novel’s title comes to light.
Larson plays with the rules of storytelling by adhering to the facts strictly, and allowing himself to write beyond historical artifact as little as possible. Erik Larson’s “The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America” is a truly captivating read.