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Tale of Two Windy Cities

Author Erik Larson unites demented serial killers and hopeful inventors at the 1892 World Fair.


Erik Larson was researching nineteenth-century murders when he came across the story of H.H. Holmes, a serial killer who operated just blocks from the 1892 World's Fair in Chicago. But he dismissed the story. "I wasn't interested in doing a slasher book," he explains. "I wanted something more mannered, with more weight." So instead he investigated another murder, which led him to write about the 1900 hurricane that destroyed Galveston, Texas.

When Larson began searching for new ideas, though, he kept coming back to Holmes, intrigued by the juxtaposition between the murderer's sinister plotting and the majesty of the World's Fair. The resulting book, Devil in the White City, traces the evolution of the fair, touching on the legion of architects, laborers and politicians who made it happen while tracking Holmes' dark vision of the event. Dozens of tourists fell victim to cremation ovens, secret vaults and gas jets in Holmes' World's Fair Hotel. Whereas Holmes' story is one of macabre cruelty, the fair's is all motion and progress, a dream fulfilled.

"I don't believe either story alone would make a book I'd be interested in doing," Larson says. "But here you have this example of civic goodwill and absolute darkness almost touching, while functioning in this pivotal period in history just a few blocks apart. Together they triggered something in my mind."

Fascinated by the small stories that often get pushed out of the big picture presented by straightforward history books, Larson dips into one anecdote after another, including a chance meeting between Helen Keller and the inventor of a typewriter for the blind. There's also the story of the man who - while trying to contrive more exotic music for his imported belly dancers - composed the universal snake-charming song that teaches grade-school kids about the place in France where the naked ladies dance. "I think you have to go by what fascinates you and piques your interest," Larson explains. "Not being a historian, I have the luxury of being able to find these lost stories in history and animate them."

Though there's renewed enthusiasm for historical narratives, the genre is not new. "This is how people wrote at the turn of the century," Larson says. "All we've been doing is turning back to the idea that nonfiction does not have to be a chore."

Larson's writing career has consisted more of happy accidents than chores. He decided to become a reporter after seeing the movie version of All the President's Men, then applied only to the journalism school at Columbia University. After graduating, he eventually moved from a job at a county rag to The Wall Street Journal. There, Larson became enslaved to the "significance [paragraph]" - the indication of a story's newsworthiness. Which is why it was hard to let himself write a book like Devil in the White City.

"I found myself wrestling with the story. I would ask myself, What's the reason for telling this story? I love it, it's full of great stuff, but where's the significance 'graph? Then I realized, to hell with the significance 'graph. It's a great story, so I'm going to tell it."

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