This book is a work of creative non fiction that re-tells the overlapping stories of the architects of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and the serial killer Dr Henry Holmes. The book opens with one of the last surviving architects, Daniel Burnham, reflecting on his life and his friends as he travels on the ship Olympic towards Europe April 14, 1912 (the significance of the date becomes obvious later on). The rest of the story is told as a flashback, beginning with Chicago’s bid to host the Fair in hopes of outdoing Paris. Once the bid is secured Burham’s backstory is told and his eventual taking on of the oversee of designing and building the World’s Fair grounds. The second thread, the story of Holmes and his activities, is introduced in very general but foreboding terms. The two stories are told in alternation as they progress alongside each other.
The book is well-researched, and every quotation is taken from a contemporary written record, such as correspondence or news report. Larson’s archival work served him very well. The ‘creative’ aspect of the true stories comes in the forms of some educated guessing concerning character thoughts and perceptions. I enjoyed the amount of historical detail, although it does make the book a bit dense and makes for a slow read.
There are some problems with pacing and the two intertwined plot-lines do not really mesh well. The only connection between the two is that they take place in the same place and time, and Holmes might have visited the Fair once. Many segments end with a cliff-hanger (which is not in itself a problem, in fact I think such structure is expected), but due to the sheer amount of detail, when the thread returns, there can be problems remembering exactly what was going on and who everyone is.
There are two separate stories, both interesting and told well, but I think they might have been better off as two separate monographs. I would have much rather gotten to know some of the other people involved with the Fair construction and management for example, although Burnham’s perspective is engaging. With the Holmes thread, there could have been a lot more attention to the trial and local reactions to extend that narrative further.
In spite of the problems, this is a good story, well told (a Mark Twain reference via Lee Gutkind). I certainly plan to read some of Larson’s other works, including his book about 1930s Germany (In the Garden of Beasts) and new one considering the Lusitania (Dead Wake).