Saturday, February 18, 2012

"Devil in the White City"--a book club discussion

The book for this month's book club was The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson. The book takes place during the Gilded Age in Chicago and describes the players and events leading up to the Chicago World's Fair of 1893. It also tells the story of a serial killer who used the fair to further his wealth and killing opportunities. The story of the world's fair is complex. It involves personality conflicts, city competitions, new technologies, illnesses, deaths, labor unions, acts of God, politics, and fires among other things. The story of the serial killer is disturbing but fascinating. The amazing thing is that these stories are true.

What did the critics think? Devil is the White City was on the best seller list when it came out in 2003 and has won numerous awards. Most critics liked it for Larson's ability to tell a story, pay attention to details, and build suspense. Some thought his writing was too obvious and didn't like it.

What did my book club think? (and a few others that I talked with who read the book)
Things we agreed on:
  • We all liked the book.
  • We were amazed by how much we didn't know about Chicago and the "Fair that changed the world" before reading the book.
  • The building of the fair could have been a stand alone story.
  • The book seemed well researched.
  • The serial killer part was very creepy and disturbing.
Things we didn't agree on:
  • Some thought the serial killer story was disturbing but interesting reading. Others thought that it was unnecessary and would have been just as happy if it had not been in the book.
  • The book was written as two parallel stories that didn't really cross. Some thought the switching back and forth between the stories built suspense. Others found it cumbersome to reorient to a different story every chapter.
  • Some found parts of it slow reading with details of the construction and committees. Others found  those parts interesting.
  • Some would recommend Devil in the White City with few reservations while others would only recommend it to a select audience. All agreed that any recommendation would be accompanied with a warning about the serial killer part.

What did I think? Wow! But don't read the parts about the serial killer before you go to bed.


But Wait, There's More
Did you know that among other things, the 1893 Chicago World's Fair introduced us to Cracker Jacks, Juicy Fruit gum, shredded wheat, and the Ferris Wheel?

Note: One of my pet peeves is a review of a movie or book that gives away most of the story. So when I discuss a book, I will only do it in the broadest sense in case you want to read it later. I'll always try to have a link where you can get more information if you want.


  1. You've confirmed what I've thought about this book -- that it's not for me because I do most of my reading right before bed. :-)

    1. The fair part of the story is really interesting and builds as if it were a novel. The part about Holmes, the serial killer, is in every other chapter and you could skip them without harm to the other story.


What do you think?