In The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson re-creates the history of the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, also known as the Columbian Exposition. Using primary sources, including newspaper articles, diaries, first-person accounts, and other documents, he interweaves the stories of two real men--Daniel H. Burnham, a talented architect who, with his partner, constructs and publicizes the fair, and H.H. Holmes, a serial killer who uses the construction of the fair to carry out trickery and murder.
The author has several purposes in writing this book, which is a type of narrative non-fiction (meaning it is history with a strong, compelling story). First, it's a great story--it's entertaining and about the growth of one of America's greatest cities. Second, Larson re-creates the wonder and chaos of the process of creating America's urban areas, including the anonymity they offered to scoundrels like Holmes. Third, by bringing together two stories that have not been connected before, he is in a sense drawing closer connections between the two protagonists--Burnham and Holmes--and suggesting that one used the fair to achieve greatness and the other (obviously Holmes) used the fair for evil. In this sense, the book offers a story that is new and ground-breaking, and it builds on more traditional, straightforward histories by using different types of primary sources (journals, diaries, newspapers, etc.). Larson may not be trying to discredit other writers but to offer a new perspective on historical events.
The result, by most readers' and critics' accounts, is stunning. The book is very readable and suspenseful to the point of being compelling, and, by using a broad variety of sources, Larson re-creates in fascinating and often gory detail what the time period was like.