The Devil and the White City seemed like a book that would be right up my alley, as both major focuses - The Chicago World's Fair and the murder spree of H. H. Holmes - are things I've been independently interested in for years. But I've stayed away before now because I just don't enjoy even good nonfiction as much as I enjoy fiction - if I'm going to read about historical events in recent history, I'd prefer the coverage of the time usually.
Alas, so it was this time. There are bits of this book that are absolutely riveting, and surprisingly to me they weren't the salacious murder parts. Instead, the real five-star material in this book for me was in the little tidbits about the fair, about Chicago, and about the famous people who were touched by the World's Fair. Particularly stuck in my head are short asides about Buffalo Bill and Susan B. Anthony, Walt Disney's father, and the creator of the world's first Ferris wheel. These short little excerpts really gave a window into the time and the social attitude, as well as giving the story roots that have supported flowers in our own lifetimes.
I guess my reading on H. H. Holmes maybe ruined this book a little for me in his parts. While it was really nice (and sad) to get to know more about his victims, there was otherwise little I hadn't read before. The bits there were pretty good, 4-star stuff, compelling in their own right though. And sad. And grisly. He was truly a horrifying person, and the thought of anyone so cheerfully doing what he did is stomach churning no matter how often you read about it.
There was also a compelling story, told in short interspersed segments, about the man who murdered the mayor. His sad descent and the treatment he received (and the treatment he needed but did not receive) were sad in their own right.
For me, the weakest part of the book was probably in the early progression of the fair's creation. Meetings. Politics. They can be interesting if done right, but I found myself having a hard time keeping all these architects separate in my head, and their meetings, debates, disagreements and physical ailments seemed to be an endless parade, except parades usually have music (and sometimes candy). I didn't find most of them to be interesting as people, and their various get-togethers were therefore like a somewhat jazzed up reading of the minutes from the local city council. It got a little better once the fair actually began to come together and the conflicts took on a bit more dimension, but for the first third... no. And this isn't a knock against the author. The stuff was important to cover and he wrote it well enough, but to me it just didn't make a compelling story.
Overall, an interesting book with a slow start and a cool look into the changing world of the turn of the 18th century (is that how that phrase goes? Turn of the old century? or is it turn of the new?)