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The Devil in the White City

Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America
Written by: Erik Larson
Narrated by: Scott Brick
Length: 14 hrs and 58 mins
4.5 out of 5 stars (78 ratings)
Price: CDN$ 40.04
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Publisher's Summary

In a thrilling narrative showcasing his gifts as storyteller and researcher, Erik Larson recounts the spellbinding tale of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition.

The White City (as it became known) was a magical creation constructed upon Chicago's swampy Jackson Park by Daniel H. Burnham, the famed architect who coordinated the talents of Frederick Olmsted, Louis Sullivan, and others to build it. Dr. Henry H. Holmes combined the fair's appeal with his own fatal charms to lure scores of women to their deaths. Whereas the fair marked the birth of a new epoch in American history, Holmes marked the emergence of a new American archetype, the serial killer, who thrived on the very forces then transforming the country.

In deft prose, Larson conveys Burnham's herculean challenge to build the White City in less than 18 months. At the same time, he describes how, in a malign parody of the achievements of the fair's builders, Holmes built his own World's Fair Hotel - a torture palace complete with a gas chamber and crematorium. Throughout the book, tension mounts on two fronts: Will Burnham complete the White City before the millions of visitors arrive at its gates? Will anyone stop Holmes as he ensnares his victims?

©2003 Erik Larson (P)2003 Books on Tape, Inc.

What the critics say

  • Edgar Allan Poe Award Winner, Fact Crime, 2004

"A hugely engrossing chronicle of events public and private." (Chicago Tribune)
"Vivid history of the glittering Chicago World's Fair and its dark side." (New York Magazine)
"Both intimate and engrossing, Larson's elegant historical account unfolds with the painstaking calm of a Holmes murder."(Library Journal)

What members say

Average Customer Ratings

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  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars
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  • Tee
  • 2017-10-12

Dry non-fiction

If you like matter-of-fact non-fiction, this story may be for you.

I did not enjoy the book. It reads like a compilation of news reports. The narrator read with an unemotional voice.

There are two storylines - that of Daniel Burnham in the planning and construction of the 1893 Chicago World Fair, and the account of H.H. Holmes the serial killer who lived in Chicago at that time. Each storyline is more or less self-contained. That they should be juxtaposed in one book gives me the impression that Larsen is simply trying to double the thickness of his book.

Warning: There are accounts of murders which the author had pieced together from his research, including of children. I find these chilling and unsettling because they indeed took place.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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Well written

Really enjoyed it. Be warned, this book does contain content regarding a serial killer that is fairly explicit. Regardless, it is an amazing book!

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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    2 out of 5 stars
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Fragmented

Struggled to finish it. Fragmented . I will not keep this book. Certainly not Larson's best

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excellent book

I enjoyed everything about this book .I found myself looking up everything that I could about the real story

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    5 out of 5 stars
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Engrossing Tale

This is the second book I have enjoyed by this author. The perfect blend of storytelling and history read with just the right tone. Both me and my husband loved it and will look for his other works in the future. #Audible1

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    5 out of 5 stars
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I can't believe how this book feels like a story

feels like a narrative, still very informative. I love the way the author wrote it

#Audible1

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
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Very Interesting

I was very captivated by this story - I learned so much as well. Had no idea of the size and scale of Chicago’s fair. #Audible1

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Great book

Provides a great recap of the world’s fair and everything that went into making it.

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Amazing!

Two incredible stories, each fascinating in its own right. I don’t know what I liked more, the story of Chicago’s amazing world fair and the white city or the creepy tale of a serial killer happening under everyone’s nose!

0 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • Michael
  • Mill Valley, CA, United States
  • 2012-05-26

Impossible to stop listening

Of the 30+ books I've listened to since 2009, The Devil in the White City is one of the best experiences. Erik Larson's writing is sublime. He conjures the Chicago of the late nineteenth century so clearly that he might be documenting events that occurred yesterday. The stories about the design, organization, and construction of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair as well as the personalities involved are all utterly fascinating. The macabre portions that deal with serial killer Dr. H. H. Holmes are so bizarre as to almost be unbelievable. While listening to this book, I found myself continually thinking, "Truth truly is stranger than fiction."

Prior to my listen I was apprehensive about the narrator, Scott Brick, who had also done Ron Chernow's Washington: A Life. I felt that Brick's reading of that book was slightly stilted, but his performance of Devil in the White City is pitch perfect.

71 of 72 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • D
  • Peekskill, NY, USA
  • 2003-09-18

A Rich Read!

I enjoyed this listen so much I lost sleep to continue listening. Scott Brick is my favorite narrator and he doesn't disappoint here. Set in Chicago in the late 1800's the book tells two stories. The fascinating story of Chicago's rush to build the White City and hold the World Fair of 1893 (celebrating the 400th anniversary of Columbus' discovery of America and visited by everyone who was anyone); as well as the murderous actions of Herman Mudgett (a.k.a. HH Holmes) a well respected doctor who preyed on young trusting women, and anyone else who got in his way.

The author writes in such a way that you can truly imagine the excitement and boom happening in that place and time. Other added details such as the detectives' intense search for evidence, appearances by famous people, and a tale from the Titanic make this story a rich and enjoyable read.

This was a huge undertaking for any author and I'm glad Larson ventured to uncover this enthralling story, however more details of both the murders and the building of the city would have been welcomed. Still a fascinating read that for the first time makes me look forward to the movie so I can see the incredible White City come to life.

216 of 232 people found this review helpful

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  • Kelly
  • Colorado Springs
  • 2014-06-18

two excellent stores read by a superb narrator

My daughter was assigned this book as part of her summer reading for her Honor's English class. I got to it first and spent two nights awake until dawn listening in wonder. I expected a murder mystery set in the World's Fair. It was so much more. Really there were two stories running concurrently. We did follow HH Holme and know what he was up to while living in Chicago. There was nothing gruesome -- Mr Larson writes about Holmes' machinations in a straightforward way. For me this mad it feel less sensational and I was glad for the writing style.

The other story interested me further. Following the preparation for, the buildup towards, and the financial consequences of the Fair was fascinating. It allows the reader to understand the culture of our home country at a time more than 100 years in our past. We meet world leaders, owners of the largest businesses, the father of a son who later be known as WALT DISNEY. But we also meet people that some might not recognize. FREDERICK LAW OLMSTEAD played a large role throughout the book. It was fascination t flesh out his life as I knew him only as the designer of Central Park in New York. Interspersed throughout the entire story are came performances. I particularly liked the the short moment shared between Pulham and Helen Keller.

i loved everything about the book -- with one caveat. Really more advice. Don't let your mind wander. You won't want to miss any of the hidden gems.

36 of 38 people found this review helpful

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  • Calliope
  • 2013-09-09

well written, well researched, well read

I'll start by saying that, as much as I liked this audio book, it's really two stories that aren't wound together very well. That's OK because they're both good and worth time and attention. The bulk of the book is about the creation and execution of the Columbian Exposition, which is told in a way that is more interesting than one would expect. From the architectural challenges to the societal politics, from the adoption of AC current to the creation of the first Ferris Wheel, it was all far more interesting than I had expected. The addition of the extra story, of the sociopath serial killer HH Holmes, is timely enough so as not to stand out, but doesn't really flow as part of the story of the Exposition either. Holmes ran a ''hotel'' for young women going to the Fair, many of whom fatally disappeared, but Holmes crimes started before the Fair and continued after, so linking them is a bit of a stretch.

Scott Brick did an excellent job as the narrator, winning me over after a previous performance reading a book I couldn't finish because it was so bad. I hesitated when I saw his name, but there was no need,,,,he did a stellar job. The author too did an excellent job writing a very accessible book from a lot of well researched material.

21 of 22 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Cayce
  • Atlanta, GA, United States
  • 2006-10-07

Completely engrossing

This was one of the best books I've heard on Audible (and I listen to around 2 a week). True, there is a lot of detail, but unlike a few other readers, I didn't find one moment of it tedious.

I, of course, had heard of the Columbian Exposition, but I had no idea what a large role it played in the history of Chicago or the country. The descriptions of the building of the fair, the social classes and the side story about the murders gave me a good feel for the time and the attitudes of the people who lived then. It was also interesting to hear about people like Olmstead and how he worked.

I was fascinated by this book and spent a lot of time after I finished it looking at photos of the fair online.

The whole thing was like one of those great New Yorker articles about something you know nothing about but, once introduced, can't get enough of.

29 of 32 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • PKsweets
  • CA
  • 2009-10-27

Entrancing historical thriller

In reading some of the lower rated reviews, I was hesitant to make this pick but now
I cannot think of a better way to tell the two intertwined stories presented here. They are the yin and yang of the event, and with the wonderful narration, and engrossing detail, the story flew along.....well, as fast as you can listen to those 14+ hours. Unlike other long downloads, this one kept me in the story, and I did not have to 'back-up' to remember the place....
The amazing scope of this Fair is awesome, and for the time history-making on so many fronts, from the Labor movement, to engineering, and sanitation, we can still see this Fair's footprint on our daily lives! Concurrently,
the gruesome serial-killer who took advantage of the circumstances is a potent reminder that there is always evil lurking just under the beautiful surface, and we cannot be too vigilant.
The narration was perfect, and this story will please the history buff, mystery or thriller reader in you.

56 of 65 people found this review helpful

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  • Dr. Meggin McIntosh
  • Reno, NV
  • 2013-05-27

The Best Book I've Listened to in at Least a Year!

WOW! My first Erik Larson book and definitely not my last. I only wish Scott Brick was the narrator for the one I just bought. From the first sentence through the last one, I was completely taken in by this story and this performance. I learned so much and I enjoyed every second of it. I can't even think of a book that was as "perfect" (I hate to use that word) as this one and definitely better to listen because of Scott Brick than it would have been if I had read it. It sounds like a novel but of course, it's true, which made it even more exciting. Loved it!!

21 of 24 people found this review helpful

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  • Heather Wilde
  • Pike Lake
  • 2017-04-25

Historical richness

The onslaught of details overwhelmed me to start, but I am glad I stuck with it. I soon became entranced in the drama and details. Nicely done!

4 of 4 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Audra
  • Toronto, ON, Canada
  • 2003-10-13

Couldn't take my earphone out...

I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of this audible book. The two story lines are both wonderful and either one on their own would have been enough to keep me entertained.

A wonderfully researched and thoughtfully written book that is brought to life by a voice made to be listened to.

Do yourself a favour and get this one.

58 of 69 people found this review helpful

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    4 out of 5 stars
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  • Samuel
  • 2017-08-12

A lot of stuff should have been left out

One part of the story was about bourgeoisie project management. Indeed, the part about the men behind the Chicago world fair read like an article from the New Yorker that just wouldn't end.
The other (and rather unrelated) part of the book was about H.H. Holmes, one of America's worst killers. Fascinating stuff.
Weirdly enough the story lost steam once the chase for the killer got going. Had I been the editor, it would have been very different. 'Dead Wake' by Erik Larson was a lot better.
Scott Brick did an excellent job reading.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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  • Pierre Gauthier
  • 2017-10-29

Interesting but not Perfect!

This work intertwines the planning, construction and unwinding of the 1893 Columbian Exhibition in Chicago with the doings of a serial killer that went on in that city at the same period.

Thus, the narrative basically alternates between the actions of luminaries such as Daniel Burnham and Frederick Law Olmsted and those of a mad criminal. A third plot is also meshed in, regarding another madman living in his delusions.

Though the three series of characters never meet, there is initially a unity of time and place and a strong suspense is developed.

Sadly, about three quarters of the way through, this unity is lost as the Exhibition is closed, the murderer carries his deeds to various other locations such as Philadelphia and Toronto and the madman has been arrested.

The epilogue however does bring all the loose ends together and tells of the final fate of all major protagonists.

There clearly was an outstanding amount of research carried out by the author although, as he himself mentions, his imagination was required to make things fit together. He may also be criticized for his overly lengthy macabre descriptions that appear unnecessary.

Though not perfect, this partially fictional work will certainly prove worthwhile, particularly to those interested in architecture and urban planning.