So begins The Devil in the White City, Larson’s sprawling account of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, which has largely faded from the popular imagination despite its tremendous cultural, social, and architectural impact on turn-of-the-century America. For its time, the fair was impossibly grand, the biggest American event since the Civil War; it would introduce Cracker Jacks, Aunt Jemima’s pancake mix (“slave in a box,” as its makers dubbed it), the Ferris Wheel, and a whole host of other products, as well as popularizing the new miracle of alternating current. But the fair’s greatest feat was convincing Americans that cities need not merely be filled with pragmatic structures in which form followed function; the fair’s mere existence seemed to argue that the city could be beautiful. Though their work would later be derided by Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright as hobbling America’s organic architectural movement, the fair’s primary architects Daniel Burnham and John Root oversaw the creation of neoclassical buildings that awed visitors, some of whom broke down weeping when they caught sight of what came to be known as the White City.
This was also a period when it was becoming socially acceptable for young women to travel alone, and they were arriving in Chicago in droves. Waiting for them, as Larson tells us, was one Herman Mudgett, a.k.a. H.H. Holmes, a serial killer who preyed on his guests in a darkly lit hotel near the fairgrounds that boasted such odd features as inescapable vaults and a crematorium. Holmes gives the book added juice and some surprising metaphorical heft. His murderous rebuke to the uncertain young women who had ever so tentatively set out to push cultural boundaries, probably hobbled the country’s evolving cultural mores as the 20th century dawned. Unfortunately, Holmes also brings out the worst impulses in the author. Larson is occasionally prone to lines that would seem overwrought in a Harlequin novel; in a work of nonfiction, they simply sound false. It is unlikely, for example, that “If [a] photographer saw anything in Mudgett’s eyes, it was a pale blue emptiness that he knew, to his sorrow, no existing film could ever record.” Later Larson describes those same eyes as possessing “a flat blue calm, like the lake on a still August morning.”
But for the most part, the effort is a success, not least because Larson has done his homework: He conducted all of the research himself, from rare books and primary sources, and agonized over Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood for insights on how to recreate Holmes’s killings. But Holmes’s presence in the book is vital, not least because, for all its focus on the fair, this is largely a work about a forgotten Chicago, a city oddly regal in its sweat and stench. If the White City was the future, and Chicago, the black city, the past, then Holmes was at the intersection of two worlds: a man of charm and cold efficiency who took advantage of the new technology to serve impulses more at home in the stockyards than in Burnham and Root’s utopian vision of the future.