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Erik Larson

Doubleday £17.99 pbk

Reviewed by Mick Herron

Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City juxtaposes two apparently seminal events: the staging of the Chicago World Fair of 1893, and the slightly premature emergence of that twentieth-century phenomenon the serial killer, in the shape of one Herman Webster Mudgett. While "Mudgett" is arguably a perfect name for a psychopath, Herman, perhaps the prototype of his kind, neatly enough chose to call himself H.H. Holmes, after the first consulting detective, and under that alias prowled Chicago: charming women, seducing them, and ultimately incinerating them in his custom-built kiln. Their skeletons he then sold to medical schools. Daniel Hudson Burnham, meanwhile, was engaged in what was evidently the awesome task of staging a very big fair, whose chief attraction, the Ferris Wheel, was specifically intended to put the Eiffel Tower (and by implication the French, and indeed the whole of Europe) in its place. Plus ca change.
There's an awful lot of detail about the building of this funfair-and I do mean an awful lot of detail-and non-American readers might have trouble getting quite so misty-eyed over it. Larson quotes one of the exposition's movers and shakers as saying, after a planning meeting, "do you realise this has been the greatest meeting of artists since the fifteenth century?" and the context suggests we're supposed to agree with the idiot. As for Holmes, we can only hope that the intervening century has made life more difficult for the breed-if your neighbour asked you to help him test his soundproof vault, wouldn't you ask him what he needed one for? This book, Larson insists, is not a novel, but he embroiders scenes with details he can't have knowledge of, albeit with the same detachment with which he describes everything else. As a result, the book seemed to me to fall between stools, though a lot of work obviously went into it.