Murder, Magic & Madness: 20 Thriller Books Like The Devil in the White City

The Devil in the White City is a true story based on the serial killer H.H. Holmes, America’s first criminal of this sort. Set in the 1890s, this story takes you through his gruesome kills and sheds light on the dark underbelly of glamorous Chicago. 

Murder, Magic & Madness: 20 Books Like The Devil in the White City

In the late 1800s, Chicago won the right to host the World’s Fair, a fantastic opportunity to show the world the glamorous city and to emphasize the one-of-a-kind American experience. The city was known for civil unrest and high crime rates, so this event was the perfect way to redirect any reputation clinging onto the city.

But instead, the World’s Fair allowed crime to flourish and paved the way for America’s first serial killer to strike. He would become the first of his nature seen in America and would act as an inspiration for serial killers to come. 

This novel is gory, violent, and harrowingly accurate, so read with caution. The Devil in the White City is a widely celebrated novel, exploring themes of human behavior, politics, and the striking difference between perception and reality.

The duality of this book is what makes it such a brilliant read. While emphasizing the so-called ‘perfection’ of the American lifestyle through detailed descriptions of amazing buildings and friendly people, Erik Larson simultaneously outlines how dark and gruesome Chicago really was. With excellent characterizations, suspenseful plot lines, and an amazing ability to plunge readers into history, The Devil in the White City is a fantastic book that is not only enjoyable for most thriller-seekers but also educational.

Historical books and true crime are two of the most well-read genres out there, so there’s no surprise that this book (that merges the two) was so popular when it was published in 2003. There are a plethora of similar books that will keep you on the edge of your seat and help you understand some of the forgotten, gruesome stories within global history. 

When studying history, it’s easy to focus on the main events and figures, without delving into personal experiences and minor sub-stories. This genre provides an insight into the smaller, lesser-known stories that are often left out of history lessons or textbooks. These books will help you fill the gaps in the timeline and give you an insight into the real horrors of the past through personal experiences.

If you like the sound of this book, hopefully, this list will give you multiple other recommendations to add to your reading list. Here are 20 similar books for you to enjoy.

Sin in the Second City by Karen Abbott

Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America's Soul

This novel covers the success and downfall of America’s most notorious brothel and how it has changed the perception of Chicago forever.

Sin in the Second City is riddled with sex, violence, and scandal and critiques American pop culture in the most graphic and accurate way.

This Republic of Suffering by Drew Gilpin Faust

This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (National Book Award Finalist) (Vintage Civil War Library)

Faust’s novel dives into the personal impacts of the American Civil War and how the period just after was impacted not only by the mass loss experienced but also by the social implications that meant a new generation of Americans had to adapt, do without, and survive in unprecedented circumstances. 

This Republic of Suffering details the religious and social factors that affected millions nationwide, through the vivid and contrasting voices of soldiers, doctors, and survivors.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara

I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer

During the 1970s and 80s, a dedicated and brutal serial killer took 10 lives viciously, leaving a trail of confusing clues behind which perplexed the police and led them down numerous dead ends.

10 years after these murders stopped, Michelle McNamara dedicated her life to finding the so-called ‘Golden State Killer’, immersing herself in interviews, evidence, police reports, and witness statements. She documented her process online, collecting a group of intrigued strangers who helped her if and when they could along the way. 

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is a compelling true crime story that will keep you on your toes the whole way through. 

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race

This is the story that sheds light on the forgotten story of three African American women who contributed to the American aerospace development that would play a vital role in the Space Race.

Hidden Figures is the story of how the brilliant minds of three bright women changed the course of astrophysics and rocket science, without any recognition. They battled the implications of Jim Crow segregation laws all while crucially participating in some of NASA’s greatest successes of the time.

World’s Fair Notes by Marian Shaw

World's Fair Notes: A Woman Journalist Views Chicago's 1893 Columbian Exposition

This book follows the same event as covered in The Devil of the White City but instead of focusing on the darker secrets that lay underneath the event, it describes the event in more detail, using articles as references and providing a feminist layer that discusses the role of female journalists during this time.

World’s Fair Notes is not similar in genre but would be a great book if The Devil in the White City sparked any interest in the events and circumstances of the era.

Rising Tide by John M. Barry

Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How it Changed America

This epic story tells of the events of 1927 – the Great Mississippi Flood. This event was not only completely destructive for over a million people living nearby but had huge political, racial, and scientific implications. 

Rising Tide goes into great depth about the flood itself, telling the personal stories of many who suffered as a result, but also provides a brilliant insight into consequences that helped make Hoover president and forced thousands of African Americans to migrate north causing numerous racial issues in the process.

Curious Toys by Elizabeth Hand

Curious Toys

Set in 1915, Curious Toys follows the 14-year-old girl who disguised herself as a boy to join a gang that is known for causing havoc in the Riverview amusement park.

But when a violent murderer is found to be using that same theme park too, the story takes a chilling turn and horrific crimes are uncovered.

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

Unbroken (The Young Adult Adaptation): An Olympian's Journey from Airman to Castaway to Captive

This brilliant story will have you laughing, crying, and unable to stop turning pages. Unbroken is the epic survival story of Louis Zamperini, who was a dedicated sprinter in his youth before the war broke out. 

He even went to the Berlin Olympics competing for America but when the Second World War broke out, Louis was forced to drop everything and enlist like everyone else. 

He is employed as a bombardier whose plane crashes in the middle of the ocean. As if being stranded at sea isn’t torture enough, Zamperini then gets taken captive by Japanese forces and he is forced to work in a labor camp, tortured, beaten, and reduced to a shell of a man. But his perseverance never falters. 

This brilliant true story will take you through the emotional ringer. An absolute must-read for anyone.

The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary

This fantastic story tells of how the Oxford English Dictionary was created. Sounds like a boring premise, right? Well, when you throw the veteran and criminally insane Dr. Minor in the mix, things get more exciting.

The Professor and the Madman is a fantastic tale about perseverance and mental illness, featuring graphic and honest descriptions and one gripping storyline.

The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston

The Monster of Florence

After moving to the romantic landscape of Florence, Preston can finally relax and write his suspense novels

But when he finds out that his new garden was the scene of a double murder and he gets wrapped up in a spine-tingling murder mystery of his own, Florence proves to be less relaxing than originally anticipated.

The Monster of Florence is a true story, told first-hand, that will keep you guessing until the final chapter.

The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown 

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

The Boys in the Boat is the brilliant tale of how eight ordinary boys from working-class backgrounds took over the rowing scene at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. 

It is the ultimate tale of dedication and physical strain and tells the forgotten story of how eight underdogs beat world-renowned teams during a period of political and social turbulence.

Manhunt by James L. Swanson

Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer: An Edgar Award Winner (P.S.)

After the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the world’s biggest and most significant manhunt began. 

Manhunt tells the story of how troops were sent across cities, fields, mountains, swamps, and villages to find out who was responsible for the death of one of the most important figures in American history.

The Girls of Murder City by Douglas Perry

The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago

Written by an award-winning journalist, this gripping and toe-curling story follows the revengeful, scandalous murders that took over Chicago.

The story told in The Girls of Murder City is thought to have inspired Chicago, the award-winning musical and features a fantastically-written, period piece set in Chicago’s glamorous Jazz Age.

The Big Short by Michael Lewis

The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine

The Big Short delves deep into the mindset and lives of seven people responsible for creating the credit default swap market, which helped them profit during the financial crisis of 2007-8. 

This novel not only uncovers the true story of financial gain but also provides detailed insight into the greed, corruption, and foolishness provoked by economic turmoil.

Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster

Into Thin Air tells the author’s true story about being stuck on Mount Everest during a treacherous and deadly storm.

This graphic and frank narrative immerses the reader, detailing the fear, physical drain, injury, and survival tactics used while trying to survive on the Earth’s tallest peak.

In Harm’s Way by Doug Stanton

In Harm's Way

This award-winning novel delves into the true story of America’s most dangerous and impactful naval disaster. 

In Harm’s Way details the experiences of soldiers who survived the events of July 30th, 1945. The USS Indianapolis was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine, leaving all survivors stranded in the Pacific Ocean, with only their colleagues, sharks, and their survival instincts for company. 

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies

This brilliant book goes into depth about how the world has developed. From an evolutionary perspective, he discusses scientific, technological, political, social, and ecological factors that have contributed to the creation of the world we now know.

Guns, Germs, and Steel covers pretty much everything and helps readers understand how human societies have advanced and failed.

The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum

The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York

This novel has an excellent sci-fi twist, telling the forgotten murder that took place in New York in the 1900s. 

It tackles the legal, scientific, and detective work that contributed to the widespread criminal use of poison. The Poisoner’s Handbook is a harrowing tale that combines science and mystery to create a brilliantly gripping account of forgotten murders.

Death in the City of Light by David King

Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Nazi-Occupied Paris

This story is bound to have you turning pages into the night, especially if you’re a fan of violent, gory books. 

Death in the City of Light tells the story of a twisted serial killer who operated in Paris during the Second World War. 

The first clue – random torn body parts begin appearing in the Seine. 

The suspect – respected, caring Dr. Marcel Petiot.

Happily providing free healthcare, Petiot is soon charged with 27 murders, but the body parts that show up accumulate to over 150.

This story blends horror, violence, legal procedures, and witnesses to uncover the ultimate (true) murder case.

The Beautiful Cigar Girl by Daniel Stashower

The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe, and the Invention of Murder

The Beautiful Cigar Girl follows the detective work solving the case of Mary Rogers, a 20-year-old girl who was found dead in the Hudson River in 1841. 

Combining murder, violence, evidence, and even Edgar Allan Poe, this story is not one to miss. 

Final Thoughts

These novels provide a wide range of interesting stories, most of which are true and shed light on the individual sufferings that are often overlooked in history books. Not only are they enthralling to read, often centering around violence, psychology, and politics, but they allow readers to fill the gaps in their historical knowledge and perhaps even spark some interest in a historical period that is not widely covered anywhere else. Hopefully, something caught your eye on this list!

Frequently Asked Questions

What genre is The Devil in the White City?

This book belongs to the literary nonfiction genre, telling a true story, using gripping story-telling techniques and intricate characterizations, as seen in most fictionalized books.

Who is H.H. Holmes?

Herman Webster Mudgett, also known as Henry Howard Holmes or H.H. Holmes was known as the first-ever American serial killer and con artist that racked up over 50 crimes in Chicago during the late 1800s.

Is The Devil in the White City appropriate for YA readers?

Yes – anyone over the age of 15 should be fine with this book, but parents should be aware that themes and descriptions of violence, death, and gore are used throughout the book.

Has The Devil in the White City been adapted on-screen?

Hulu announced that they are working with Keanu Reeves to create a short television series that tells the story of H.H. Holmes.

What other books has Erik Larson written?

He is known for writing nonfiction books such as The Dead Wake, Thunderstruck, Issac’s Storm, and The Splendid and the Vile.

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Colton Cowie