There was a time where it really felt like just everyone and their mother was reading this book and talking about this book. And there’s good reason – it’s absolutely fascinating and Larson does an incredible job of making cold historical facts absolutely fascinating. I could be wrong, but the modern idea of narrative nonfiction really started here, carried through largely by Larson himself. Fifteen years later, the book doesn’t hold up quite as well as I remember.
Larson leans hard into “this is all fact” but the more you read it, the more there’s a lot of speculation and thinking he knows what was in people’s heads. He also seems to delight in the gory details which might be why the H. H. Holmes chapters are so much more gripping than the ones about the fair itself. He makes multiple comparisons of Holmes to Jack the Ripper, the obvious corollary, and this is where Larson started to lose me. Last year, I read Five Women, a book about the victims of Jack the Ripper, that gave them their dignity by politely fading to black, as it were, as they met their demises. Devil in the White City isn’t even ABOUT Jack the Ripper, but that doesn’t stop Larson from devoting a long paragraph to the specifics of how he desecrated corpses.
Larson also does a whole lot of speculation of what Holmes’ victims were thinking in a way that really betrays his whole “this is all fact” premise. I’ve read some of his more recent books (well, one, and it took place in the 1930s so maybe the lesser time gap accounted for the greater accuracy) and he doesn’t do it as much any more. It took me out of the book. There are also a few stories that rely on dragged out suspense like he’d rather be writing a murder mystery (I’m thinking of the children at the end of the book). Overall, I appreciate what this book did propelling nonfiction more into the mainstream, but it’s not one I would continue to recommend. Turned out that most of my book club had not read it, hence my reread.