February 2003

Erik Larson

The devil is in the details
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Some years ago, while following one of the blind alleys that writers so often encounter when hunting anxiously for their next "big book idea," Erik Larson stumbled across the gruesome particulars of Chicago serial killer Herman W. Mudgett, alias Dr. H. H. Holmes.

"I was suitably horrified," Larson recalls from the comfort and safety of his home in Seattle, where he lives with his wife, Christine Gleason, M.D., head of the neonatology department at the University of Washington medical school, and their three daughters. "I actually read a little more about Holmes," Larson says, "and then decided that he was a kind of slasher and that I wasn't that interested."

Instead, Larson tracked another small detail that played a bit part in another Gilded Age murder mystery. Which led him to begin reading about the big Galveston hurricane of 1900. Which resulted in Larson's thrilling 1999 best-selling narrative of that catastrophe, Isaac's Storm. Which proved to be a turning point.

According to Larson, although he had always known he wanted to write books, he approached a book-writing career obliquely. After college he got a job as a gofer in a publishing house and "convinced myself that I was actually kind of writing because I was working in publishing." Next he made the mistake of seeing the movie All the President's Men and "decided that's what I want to do: bring down a president." Unsure of his exact course toward that end, he determined to let fate rule, so he applied to only one journalism school. He got in. Eventually, he took a job with the Wall Street Journal, reluctantly accepted a transfer to San Francisco, where he met the woman who would become his wife, then a day after marrying her, moved with her to Baltimore where she had been hired by Johns Hopkins University. "I was going to write novels," Larson says, "but once again I took the oblique path and freelanced."

Larson says that in Baltimore he finally grew desperate to escape "the grind of doing periodic pieces" and wrote his first book, The Naked Consumer, which was barely noticed. His second book, Lethal Passage, was a critically acclaimed book about gun control that had a political impact "but didn't sell at all." By the time Larson published his third book, Isaac's Storm, in 1999 to critical and popular acclaim, he and his wife and their growing family were living happily in Seattle. And Larson himself had finally "hit upon something that I really enjoy doing—narrative historical nonfiction."

The pleasure Larson takes in the genre is evident in the vibrant detail of his newest book, The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair That Changed America. The devil in question is Dr. Holmes, the figure Larson rejected as a book subject some years before. "The White City" is the extraordinary Chicago's World's Fair of 1893, officially known as the World's Columbian Exposition because it was designed to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus' discovery of America, but unofficially called "The White City," because of its enchanting and trend-setting architecture.

According to Larson, even while working on Isaac's Storm he continued to be tantalized not so much by Holmes himself but by the fact that Holmes lured young women to their deaths at his macabre World's Fair Hotel almost under the very lights of this great international attraction. "Interestingly," Larson says, "other people have written about Holmes but, to my surprise, the fair has always been almost parenthetical. And I kept thinking, here's this marvelous magical fair and as counterpoint to that was this dark, dark creature sort of feeding off the fair. I couldn't really tell one story without telling the other." He decided to tell both.

It was, frankly, a brilliant decision. Larson contrasts the story of Holmes with that of Daniel Hudson Burnham, the chief architect of the fair. Burnham cajoled and directed the nation's greatest architects and designers—Frederick Law Olmsted, Charles McKim, Louis Sullivan—to transform a swampy park on the shores of Lake Michigan into an astonishing wonder that logged more than 27 million visits during its brief existence, 700,000 of those visits coming in a single day. Burnham inspired George Ferris to design and build a 25-story circular amusement ride that eclipsed in size the tower Alexandre Eiffel had recently built in Paris and was capable of carrying nearly 2,000 people at a time, the first Ferris Wheel. Burnham's fair introduced to the world "a new snack called Cracker Jack and a new breakfast food called Shredded Wheat." It was visited by the likes of Buffalo Bill, Susan B. Anthony, Thomas Edison, Archduke Francis Ferdinand and George Westinghouse.

"One guy built this marvelous fair," Larson quips. "The other guy built this twisted hotel. They were both architects in a way." Taken together, the two stories allow Larson to paint a colorful and resonant portrait of the Gilded Age. "The thing I find so compelling in that period is that what defines it is sheer attitude. There was this overwhelming sense of unlimited possibility," he says.

Larson fleshes out his portrait of the age with lively stories about the competition between Westinghouse and Edison for dominance in the electricity market, the construction of the world's first skyscrapers, the practice of grave robbing among medical students. He describes the chilling effect of chloroform. He discovers that Chicago was called "The Windy City," not because of the fierce winds coming off Lake Michigan but because of the loud boasts issuing from local business leaders.

"I do all my own research," Larson says. "If I bring anything to the party, it's a knack for finding the telling details. What I love is the stuff that never makes it into professional history, because it belongs in the footnotes, because it's not appropriate. That's the stuff I live for."

And indeed, of its numerous pleasures, the greatest pleasure of The Devil and the White City is in its details.

Alden Mudge writes from Oakland, California.


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