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The Devil in the White City

  • Study Guide
Further Study

Context

Further Study Context

Erik Larson was born in 1954 and grew up in Long Island, outside of New York City. Larson wrote his first “novel” in junior high after his cartoons were rejected by The New Yorker. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in Russian History, then went on to Columbia University to study journalism in graduate school. After being passed over for a promotion for the Bucks County Courier Times in Pennsylvania, Larson was hired by the Wall Street Journal. His magazine stories have appeared in Time Magazine, The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, and Harper’s. In 1992, he published his first book, The Naked Consumer, about how businesses spy on consumers. Larson teaches and speaks across the country, and lives in Manhattan with his wife, a neonatologist and author. 

Larson gave a short interview for the Wall Street Journal about how he came to write The Devil in the White City, published in 2003. Larson read a fiction detective novel called The Alienist by Caleb Carr, which is set in New York in 1896. The story revolves around a controversial detective who holds strange beliefs about the psychological nature of his suspects, and Larson loved the book because he felt like he was transported to 1890s New York. The novel inspired Larson to write a non-fiction book about a murderer in that time period.

Larson discovered H. H. Holmes in an encyclopedia at the library. Initially, Holmes did not interest Larson much. In fact, he got distracted by an old newspaper headline while researching, and this inspired him to write another best-selling book, Isaac’s Storm, before returning to the story of Holmes and the World’s Fair of 1893. In writing The Devil in the White City, Larson took what he knew from research and extrapolated to explain feelings, thoughts, and imagery. He worried that the book would ruin his career, as the style is quite unusual in that he pursues two storylines simultaneously, though they never directly intersect. Larson feared the critics would deem the whole thing a mess, but it became a New York Times Best Seller.

Most of Larson’s books have made the New York Times Best Seller list. The Devil in the White City achieved an Edgar Award for fact-crime writing, and was a finalist for the National Book Award. In 2010, Leonardo DiCaprio bought the film rights to make a movie that would star himself as Holmes. This movie never came to fruition, but as of February 2019, Hulu began developing a series produced by DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese.