American Gothic -- Larson's The Devil in the White City Tells Tale of Grandeur and Horror

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Erik Larson estimates he spent "about two solid years" researching The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America (Crown), his new nonfiction work telling the parallel stories of Daniel Hudson Burnham, the man responsible for the construction of the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, and Dr. H.H. Holmes, America's first notorious serial-murderer, who used the occasion of that same fair for his own evil purposes.

During those years of research, Larson (author of three previous nonfiction books, including the bestselling Isaac's Storm) learned an enormous amount about his subjects, and about the Chicago World's Fair. He learned of the household-name products that debuted there: Crackerjacks, Shredded Wheat, Aunt Jemima's Pancakes; that the term "midway" (as in "carnival midway") was coined to describe part of its grounds; that the Pledge of Allegiance was written for its dedication day.

"Everything leads back to the Fair," Larson would claim, at least half-seriously. "I was enthralled, from the get-go."

And the nice thing, Larson found, was that that enthrallment continued, even after the book's publication.

For instance: "I checked into this hotel in Milwaukee today, the Pfister," Larson said by telephone one recent afternoon, in the midst of his book tour. "And the concierge greeted me, and he says, 'I have a few things I'd like to tell you.' So he comes around, and he tells me that this hotel was opened -- on the same day that the World's Fair opened! And that it was built with the idea of that kind of parallel-opening. So, just another little thread to the past."

Larson began gathering such threads for The Devil in the White City some years ago -- even before writing Isaac's Storm. What led to that preliminary fact collecting, he said, was "an accident": His reading a work of historical fiction, Caleb Carr's 1994 thriller, The Alienist.

"It's a terrific book," Larson said of the Carr novel, "about a serial killer in 1890s New York. And what I loved about it was its evocation of Old New York. And I thought, You know, maybe I could do a similar kind of thing, but nonfiction."

Larson began researching historic murders. But, he said, "I got sidetracked, because one of the murders I looked at had a hurricane connection; and I just became completely enthralled by the hurricane, so I went off and did that [Isaac's Storm]. Hence, another accident."

When next he was looking for a book idea, which he described as "that particularly awkward time in a writer's life," Larson recalled one of the figures he'd earlier come across, the murderer Dr. H.H. Holmes. "In that initial research, I rejected him as a book subject because I didn't want to do a slasher book, or something so lurid. But what lingered in the back of my mind was that this guy had done some of his killing during the World's Fair of 1893. And that intrigued me -- the idea of this happening against that tremendous backdrop."

Larson began digging into the fair, and "it was love at first sight, you might say." Pairing the story of the fair and its heroic architect, Burnham, with an account of Holmes and his grisly deeds, gave Larson a unique panorama and perspective.

"To me," he said, "it seemed quite natural. I can't imagine having done the book only on the fair, or only on Holmes. To me, it is precisely their juxtaposition that makes this a worthwhile book, to write and to read. Just the idea that these two things -- the construction of this tremendous, culturally influenced event could occur, not just at the same time, but virtually in the same place, as the killings of this dark character, who is really kind of the cultural antipode to Daniel Hudson Burnham -- to me, said a lot about the forces that were shaping the nation at the end of the 19th century and that were promising to unfold in the 20th."

The 49-year-old Larson, born in Brooklyn and living now with his wife and three children in Seattle, broke into print as a young staffer at Pennsylvania's Bucks County Courier-Times. He credits his stints in the 1980s at the Wall Street Journal with teaching him some of the particular skills he'd apply to his nonfiction books.

"Mostly," he said of his Journal duties, "I wrote feature stories -- those sort of oddball pieces on the front page, called A-heads. One of the things that made these quirky stories work, was bringing in all kinds of bizarre little details and nuggets.... I think that's really what helped me develop an eye for such things -- and an eye also for how to shoehorn things into a piece, or a book, that one ordinarily might not expect one could shoehorn in."

After the Journal, Larson wrote for Time. In 1992, he published his first book, The Naked Consumer (Henry Holt); and, in 1994, his second: Lethal Passage (Vintage). But he also wrote fiction on the side, completing some five novel manuscripts -- two of which he sold, only to withdraw them.

"My quality of nonfiction," Larson explained, "advanced to a point where there'd be a book of mine that came out that was far better than the novel I'd just sold, and it was like, Well, I can't bring this novel out to a resounding silence. And I'd pull it back."

Those unpublished fiction books were "for practice," he said now.

"Essentially they were detective stories." To write them, he studied "a lot of good models," Larson said. "Hammett, and Chandler -- and I loved Ross Macdonald. I read all his Lew Archer books." And that study, and his own unpublished novels, proved useful: "What they taught me were the technical elements of suspense, and the technical elements of narrative. And what that enabled me to do, is that when I came across an interesting subject in nonfiction, I was able to look for those technical elements in a true story. Like with Isaac's Storm -- what could be a more classic narrative arc, than a hurricane?"

While 1999's Isaac's Storm was quite well-received, The Devil in the White City is generating extraordinary enthusiasm. "The reviews have been terrific," Larson acknowledged. "The one in the New York Times, by Janet Maslin? Someone asked me if my mother wrote it."

The book was a Top Ten March/April 2003 Book Sense 76 selection, and it debuted at number four on the February 20 Book Sense Bestseller List in the hardcover nonfiction category. And Larson noted that he'd just learned the book would debut on Sunday, March 2, at number three on the New York Times Best Seller List. "The whole thing has been an adventure," he said.

The adventure, and the enthrallment, and the collecting of little pieces for his extraordinary mosaic, continue: His interviewer couldn't resist telling Erik Larson that Anthony Boucher, the New York Times Book Review's mystery critic throughout the 1950s and '60s, wrote two mystery novels in the 1940s under the pseudonym H.H. Holmes.

"Is that right!" exclaimed a pleased-sounding Larson. "There's another piece." -- Tom Nolan