Sunday, September 26, 2004

The Devil in the White City

By Erik Larson

Fred Ebb described the story about to unfold in the musical "Chicago" as "a story of murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery, and treachery - all the things we hold near and dear to our hearts," but he could have just as easily described Eric Larson's work of nonfiction, "The Devil in the White City."

Instead of the roaring twenties of the Kandor and Ebb musical, Larson's story is set in the Chicago of the 1890's. Rather than following the stories the jazz age murderesses, Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart, Larson follows two men, Daniel Burnham and Dr. H. H. Holmes, whose parallel lives are intersected only by the Colombian Exhibition, otherwise known as the 1893 Chicago World's Fair.

The two men. The first, Daniel Burnham, a prominent Chicago architect, chosen to design and oversee the construction of the 1893 Colombian Exhibition in Chicago. And the second, Herman Mudgett, more better known by one of his many aliases, Dr. H. H. Holmes, the America's first notorious serial killer.

Larson skillfully braids the lives of Burnham and Holmes by alternating chapters, focussing on one and then the other, twisting them round each other like the strands of a rope, and by doing so constructs a strong narrative. As Burnham builds his white city upon the shore of Lake Michigan simultaneously, just blocks away, Holmes constructs his hotel of secret passages, with a sound proof gas chamber, an oversized incinerator and a dissecting table in the basement. As Burnham attracts visitors to the fair, Holmes lures his unsuspecting victims to his murderous lair.

Along the way Larson introduces us to a star-studded cast of supporting characters. Among them are Frederick Law Olmstead, "Buffalo Bill" Cody, Annie Oakley, Louis Sullivan, George W. Ferris, and many more, as well as a who's who of American architects of the nineteenth century.

That being said, however, to call this book a work of nonfiction is a bit of a stretch. Creative nonfiction is a more precise nomenclature with which to label this book. Larson relates the tales of Holmes' murders with precise details that are impossible for him, as the author, to know, and a careful reading of his notes in the back of the book reveals that he interpreted many of his murder scenes from highly speculative police reports detailing what "must have happened."

Despite his imaginative inclinations, or you could argue rather because of them, Larson has succeed in writing a highly suspenseful book which weaves two unlikely events such as the Columbian Exposition and America's first documented serial killer into a page turner that I found difficult to put down.

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