Chicago: One city, two stories

If you had asked me if I’d be interested in reading a book about the behind-the-scenes drama of building the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, I would have said, “Probably not.”

If you had asked me if I’d be interested in reading a book about a serial killer who targeted vulnerable young women during the same World’s Fair, I would have said, “Probably not.”

But if you combined those storylines and packaged them as a single narrative that illustrates both the heights of what human beings can accomplish under duress and the darkest depths of diabolical behavior, well, then you’d have my attention.

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I recently completed “The Devil in the White City,” by Erik Larson and it’s one helluva read.

I’d known about the book for several years, and heard good things about it, but didn’t pluck it off a shelf until I was in a used bookstore a couple months ago. Now I know why there was such a buzz when it came out a decade ago.

Larson is a former Wall Street Journal reporter who writes with the sweep of history and the attention to detail of a journalist. How he manages to take utterly different stories and turn them into gripping side-by-side accounts of Chicago at the turn of the 20th century is an amazing feat. The book is eminently readable and took me to places I hadn’t been before.

On one hand, the book tells the story of Daniel Burnham, a Chicago architect who recruited the country’s top architects – most of them reluctantly – to work together in building a spectacular world’s fair on a vast expanse of parkland adjacent to Lake Michigan. It was a task that entailed managing egos and budgets and steering them toward a cohesive theme that would unify the dozens of buildings that had to be constructed on a ridiculously tight deadline.

On the other hand, the book tells the story of Dr. H.H. Holmes, a con artist with irresistible charm, dazzling blue eyes and the coldest heart known to man. Holmes moves to Chicago just before the fair, believing (correctly) that it’s an opportune time to buy a commercial building, open a pharmacy and hotel, and hire newly arrived, naïve young women hoping to find excitement beyond the small Midwest towns they’ve left behind.

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Author Erik Larson has taught at San Francisco State and the University of Oregon.

The stories don’t intersect at all – except on the page. Larson builds drama in telling both stories, allowing tension to build and a sense of dread to take hold with every mention of a new female subject. How the victims meet their death is nothing less than ghastly (and I’ll spare the details to avoid spoiling the experience for anyone who reads the book).

Bottom line: This is a book built on the strength of meticulous reporting. Larson succeeds in recreating the rough-and-tumble and often deadly dangerous city that Chicago was some 120 years ago. He succeeds likewise in bringing a sadistic killer to life and, in the end, tying up all the loose ends presented over more than 400 pages.

Photograph: nhpr.org

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