I picked up The Devil in the White City a few months after reading another of Larson’s books, In the Garden of Beasts, which chronicled the experiences of the American ambassador to Germany during the rise of Nazism. I greatly enjoyed that book, and so approached Devil with high expectations—especially as the subject matter was inherently intriguing.
The book follows the stories of two men in Chicago in the 1890s: Daniel Hudson Burnham, the driving force behind the creation of the Chicago World’s Fair; and H. H. Holmes, a conman and, arguably, the prototype for every serial killer to plague the 20th century. I’d heard of Holmes before, and knew a tiny bit about the World’s Fair, but there was plenty more for me to learn about both.
One particular way Larson excels is in titles—a small thing, in a sense, but important. In In the Garden of Beasts, he makes symbolic hay out of the fact that the American embassy in Berlin was located on the Tiergatrenstrasse, which translates to animal garden street—or, more poetically, “the street of the garden of beasts.” Similarly, The Devil in the White City evokes a feeling of infiltration and illusion, the idea that a place of wonder can be the perfect place for something dreadful to hide and fester.
Larson jumps back and forth between the two stories regularly, forming a counterpoint of themes that feels striking without seeming forced. The ideas a presented but not spelled out: light and darkness, creation and destruction. Larson’s prose is richer and more lyrical than you’d expect from a work of historical non-fiction, and he uses a lot of dramatic effects more common to a novel to drive the story forward.
While less exhaustive a chronicle than Beasts, the Devil in the White City is even more compelling in the picture it paints, all the more so in that the story it tells is much less known. The horrors or Nazism have been articulated in a hundred plus novels, movies, and television shows, but the more private atrocities of H. H. Holmes remain largely forgotten, despite the fact that, though on a much smaller scale, they betray an equal lack of basic humanity that underpins our society, and that has shown itself time and time again to be much more fragile than we would hope.