In 1890 Chicago had a justly earned reputation for filth, squalor, crime and violence; its biggest tourist attractions were its vast stock yards and slaughterhouses. But that year, having just edged out Philadelphia as the second most populous city in the U.S., Chicagoans had the audacity to dream of being something greater than hog-butchers as they won the bid to host the 1893 World Exposition.
This book is about the struggle to realize that dream, the building of the "White City" on a barren tract of lakefront swampland. Interwoven with the main story is the darker one of the charming serial killer, Henry Holmes, who built his World's Fair Hotel just down the street & to which he lured uncounted numbers of young women.
The book is a fascinating page-turner, all the more remarkable for being true - I raced through it in a day & a half. But even more remarkable is Erik Larson's writing style; there were many instances where I slowed down just to savor his turn of phrase. Here are some examples:
"Every day he saw (women) stepping from trains and... hansom cabs, inevitably frowning at some piece of paper that was supposed to tell them where they belonged. The city's madams understood this and were known to meet inbound trains with promises of warmth and friendship, saving the important news for later."
"Homes adored Chicago... in particular how the smoke and din could envelop a woman and leave no hint that she had ever existed."
In a Minneapolis shop Holmes has just met Myrta whom he would later bigamously marry: "When he left the store that first day, as motes of dust filled the space he had left behind, her own life seemed drab beyond endurance. A clock ticked. Something had to change."
(Myrta was luckier than his other wives; at least 2 of them Holmes seduced, murdered, dissected & sold their articulated skeletons to medical schools.)
The book seems to get off to a slow start, mired in biographical details of a host of characters whose importance we do not yet know but this mirrors the slow start to the building of the Fair itself as months are spent in frustrating waits for committee meetings, approvals, budgets & minutiae before construction can begin. Despite setbacks, strikes and storms, the pace & the suspense pick up speed; events unfold faster & faster; thousands of workmen, tons of dirt, trainloads of materials and exhibits, hordes of visitors pass before our eyes as the book and the Fair hurtle to conclusion. In parallel, as more women go missing inquiries are begun; Holmes becomes more brazen and more careless; bodies found beneath a house in downtown Toronto are traced to Holmes; he is arrested, tried and hanged.