Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed AmericaErik Larson s gifts as a storyteller are magnificently displayed in this rich narrative of the master builder, the killer, and the great fair that obsessed them bothTwo men, each handsome and unusually adept at his chosen work, embodied an element of the great dynamic that characterized America s rush toward the twentieth century The architect was Daniel Hudson Burnham, the fair s brilliant director of works and the builder of many of the country s most important structures, including the Flatiron Building in New York and Union Station in Washington, DC The murderer was Henry H Holmes, a young doctor who, in a malign parody of the White City, built his World s Fair Hotel just west of the fairgrounds a torture palace complete with dissection table, gas chamber, and , degree crematorium Burnham overcame tremendous obstacles and tragedies as he organized the talents of Frederick Law Olmsted, Charles McKim, Louis Sullivan, and others to transform swampy Jackson Park into the White City, while Holmes used the attraction of the great fair and his own satanic charms to lure scores of young women to their deaths What makes the story all the chilling is that Holmes really lived, walking the grounds of that dream city by the lakeThe Devil in the White City draws the reader into a time of magic and majesty, made all the appealing by a supporting cast of real life characters, including Buffalo Bill, Theodore Dreiser, Susan B Anthony, Thomas Edison, Archduke Francis Ferdinand, and others In this book the smoke, romance, and mystery of the Gilded Age come alive as never before Larson could be the worst nonfiction writer working in America today When he notes that Frederick Law Olmsted was no literary stylist Sentences wandered through the report like morning glory through the pickets of a fence he might as well be describing himself It s painful to make your way through his books The melodrama is over the top He ll go on for several pages about some unnamed person, attempting to heighten the mystery, and anyone who graduated second grade will quickly realiz Larson could be the worst nonfiction writer working in America today When he notes that Frederick Law Olmsted was no literary stylist Sentences wandered through the report like morning glory through the pickets of a fence he might as well be describing himself It s painful to make your way through his books The melodrama is over the top He ll go on for several pages about some unnamed person, attempting to heighten the mystery, and anyone who graduated second grade will quickly realize he s talking about the inventor of the Ferris Wheel But only several chapters later in the manner of Nancy Drew abruptly tumbling to the bottom of a dark well he ll have the mystery man dramatically sign his name to a letter George Washington Gale Ferris George Washington Gale Ferris I did not see that coming.His narrative is peppered with the most insignificant, totally unrelated factoids, I suppose because they amused him and he couldn t stand the thought of leaving them out He loves nothingthan to set a scene so and so in a Pullman car or a fine dining club, this and that person on an ocean liner, attempting to send a cable to someone on the Titanic merely in order to convey some piece of information totally unrelated to the wholly gratuitous scene As to historical accuracy, doubtless there s a fair bit he does have lots of end notes, and he consulted many historical sources But he also embellishes novelistically in a way that no real historian would ever allow himself to do It s shameful, and shameless He asserts in the text that such and such happened, but if you check the endnotes, it didn t really happen but it could have, he says It was likely, he felt After reading Isaac s Storm, which was also heavily embellished and the endnotes similarly acknowledging such, I don t trust anything this man writes I wash my hands of him Poor Erik Larson.He wanted to write an extensive, in depth look at the 1893 World s Fair, which was a collaboration of some of the greatest creative minds in the country including the guy who designed the Flatiron building in New York and Walt Disney s dad and gave us, among other things, the Ferris Wheel, the zipper, shredded wheat, and Columbus Day The entire venture was almost a disaster, with delays, petty fighting, bad weather, anddelays, but it was ultimately a massive success and Poor Erik Larson.He wanted to write an extensive, in depth look at the 1893 World s Fair, which was a collaboration of some of the greatest creative minds in the country including the guy who designed the Flatiron building in New York and Walt Disney s dad and gave us, among other things, the Ferris Wheel, the zipper, shredded wheat, and Columbus Day The entire venture was almost a disaster, with delays, petty fighting, bad weather, anddelays, but it was ultimately a massive success and helped make the city of Chicago what it is today Here s what it must have looked like when Larson pitched his idea for the book Larson And the fair didn t go flawlessly towards the end of the fair, the mayor of Chicago was assassinated by a crazy guy, and there were tons of disappearances over the course of the fair, and a lot of them were probably the work of this serial killer who had opened a hotel near the fairgrounds Editor Wait, serial killer And it s connected to the fair Cool, let s try to include that in the book Also the crazy assassin sounds good, too Larson No, the killer H.H Holmes really wasn t connected to the fair at all I mean, he used the fair as a way to collect victims, but he would have killed tons of people even without it In fact, after the fair he moved on and kept murdering people, so the fair really didn t have any effect on his methods Editor Doesn t matter How about you alternate between chapters about the fair and chapters about Holmes killing people Larson But I don t really know much about that Nobody does Holmes never admitted to killing all those people, even after the police found human remains in his basement I don t really know any actual details about the killings Editor That s okay, you can just make it up I ll give you some trashy crime novels to read, that ll give you some ideas Now tell meabout the assassination Larson He was just some mentally unbalanced person who thought he deserved a position in the mayor s office and shot the guy when he realized it wasn t going to happen But the death cast a pall over the entire closing ceremony of the fair, and it Editor Good, let s sprinkle in some bits about the crazy guy throughout the book, too Now, back to Holmes did he maybe kill somebody at the fair, or did they find a body on the grounds or something Larson No, the Chicago police didn t even notice anything was happening It wasn t until he left Chicago that a detective from another state tracked him down Editor Okay, so we ll make the end of the book about the manhunt for Holmes and his capture Larson What does any of this have to do with the World s Fair Editor Hell if I know You re the writer, not me you figure it out Here s a check Now go make me a bestseller Four stars for the World s Fair stuff, two stars for the pulpy unrelated bullshit This book is two, two, two books in one Sorry, that was annoying But it s almost as if Erik Larson wrote two really short books one about the 1893 World s Columbian Exposition and another about the murder spree of Dr H H Holmes and then shoved them together to create a single story The result isn t bad, and I think Larson is successful at maintaining clean seams between the two narratives, but it s hard to argue these two occurrences are anything but abstractedly related Yes, Holmes lived This book is two, two, two books in one Sorry, that was annoying But it s almost as if Erik Larson wrote two really short books one about the 1893 World s Columbian Exposition and another about the murder spree of Dr H H Holmes and then shoved them together to create a single story The result isn t bad, and I think Larson is successful at maintaining clean seams between the two narratives, but it s hard to argue these two occurrences are anything but abstractedly related Yes, Holmes lived in Chicago at the time of the fair and lured a bunch of people to his murder castle he be snatchin yo people up , but the events didn t weigh heavily on the fair itself or on the atmosphere surrounding it No alarm bells went off anywhere in Chicago as a result of his, um, unsavory indiscretions.Still, there is a lot of interesting stuff here, information specific to the world s fair, and it is fun to learn new things For example, the Chicago Columbian Exposition exudes a long list of firsts it saw the invention of the world s first ferris wheel, it led the nation in its first public observance of the Pledge of Allegiance, and it helped to establish alternating current as the industry standard for electricity distribution Even that awful snake charmer song has its origins in the Chicago World s Fair While writing this review, I ve come to learn that Leonardo DiCaprio, that beautiful man with the screaming cherry tomato head on a toothpick body, is producing the film adaptation, and will also play the role of serial killer H H Holmes For this I am pleased 4.5 FASCINATING