Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed American by Erik Larson

White City cover

Poor Erik Larson.

He wanted to write an extensive, in-depth look at the 1893 World’s Fair, which was a collaboration of some of the greatest creative minds in the country (including the guy who designed the Flatiron building in New York and Walt Disney’s dad) and gave us, among other things, the Ferris Wheel, the zipper, shredded wheat, and Columbus Day. The entire venture was almost a disaster, with delays, petty fighting, bad weather, and more delays, but it was ultimately a massive success and helped make the city of Chicago what it is today.

Here’s what it must have looked like when Larson pitched his idea for the book:

Larson: “And the fair didn’t go flawlessly – towards the end of the fair, the mayor of Chicago was assassinated by a crazy guy, and there were tons of disappearances over the course of the fair, and a lot of them were probably the work of this serial killer who had opened a hotel near the fairgrounds –

Editor: “Wait, serial killer? And it’s connected to the fair? Cool, let’s try to include that in the book. Also the crazy assassin sounds good, too.”

Larson: “No, the killer – H.H. Holmes – really wasn’t connected to the fair at all. I mean, he used the fair as a way to collect victims, but he would have killed tons of people even without it. In fact, after the fair he moved on and kept murdering people, so the fair really didn’t have any effect on his methods…”

Editor: “Doesn’t matter! How about you alternate between chapters about the fair and chapters about Holmes killing people?”

Larson: “But I don’t really know much about that. Nobody does – Holmes never admitted to killing all those people, even after the police found human remains in his basement. I don’t really know any actual details about the killings.”

Editor: “That’s okay, you can just make it up. I’ll give you some trashy crime novels to read, that’ll give you some ideas. Now tell me more about the assassination.”

Larson: “He was just some mentally unbalanced person who thought he deserved a position in the mayor’s office and shot the guy when he realized it wasn’t going to happen. But the death cast a pall over the entire closing ceremony of the fair, and it – ”

Editor: “Good, let’s sprinkle in some bits about the crazy guy throughout the book, too. Now, back to Holmes: did he maybe kill somebody at the fair, or did they find a body on the grounds or something?”

Larson: “No, the Chicago police didn’t even notice anything was happening. It wasn’t until he left Chicago that a detective from another state tracked him down.”

Editor: “Okay, so we’ll make the end of the book about the manhunt for Holmes and his capture.”

Larson: “What does any of this have to do with the World’s Fair?”

Editor: “Hell if I know. You’re the writer, not me – you figure it out. Here’s a check. Now go make me a bestseller!”

Verdict: four stars for the World’s Fair stuff, two stars for the pulpy unrelated bullshit.

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