Sometimes, when one reads non-fiction, it's tempting to skip the "Notes" - especially when the narrative has been as carefully crafted as Larson's. The great majority of novels don't need footnotes, and his nonfiction practically reads like a novel.
But in this case, read the "Notes" section. There's an Easter Egg, a tidbit, an anecdote, a diversion, or a little story on practically every page. Like DVD extras. Stuff that would be awkward in a fast-paced war journey but right in place in a giant list of whatnot.
While interesting, this book was just not very satisfying, in the end. If it was supposed to be a story of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, then I would have wanted a lot more of the first person experiences of those who attended it and more of how it impacted daily life in the century that followed. If it was supposed to be a story of H.H. Holmes and his murder castle, then I would have wanted a little more in depth about his victims and the society and atmosphere that allowed him to operate as he did. Instead, it was both stories, sort of folded into one another, but not really meshing. Plus another superficially told story of the Chicago mayor’s murder. Altogether, it was an okay read, but tbh I skimmed a lot of the parts detailing all the politics and finances and schmoozing that went into getting the Fair built.
One thing was clear, and that is that the targeting and victimizing of vulnerable women is the same as it ever was:
Rather, the trick lay in choosing a woman of the correct sensibility. Candidates would need a degree of stenographic and typewriting skill, but what he most looked for and was so very adept at sensing was that alluring amalgam of isolation, weakness, and need. Jack the Ripper had found it in the impoverished whores of Whitechapel; Holmes saw it in transitional women, fresh clean young things free for the first time in history but unsure of what that freedom meant and of the risks it entailed. What he craved was possession and the power it gave him; what he adored was anticipation – the slow acquisition of love, then life, and finally the secrets within.
Hardcover edition. I read this for the 2018 Halloween Bingo square Creepy Carnivals: horror/mystery/supernatural/suspense set in or concerning a carnival, amusement park, or other party/festival. This book fits as the setting is the Worlds Fair, even including the first ever Ferris Wheel.
If I had to rate the Henry H. Holmes sections I would give it 5 stars, the same for the Daniel Hudson Burnham sections. Together though, this is a solid four star book. I think trying to mesh Holmes and Burnham together doesn't really work in the end. Probably because we follow Holmes after the Fair and we see what he got up to. I wish that Larson had provided more details, it seemed fairly short in the end. We just hear how Holmes was encased in cement, his grave missing. Burnham died after learning of a friend dying on the Titanic.
Daniel Hudson Burnham
Henry H. Holmes
Larson starts his tale with going into Burnham's life as he goes across the ocean and then jumps back to his beginning and how he and his former partner, John Root would oversee design and construction of the World's Columbian Exposition otherwise known as the Chicago World's Fair in 1893. Burnham seems plagued with bad luck while the other subject of this book seems to have the devil's own luck.
Henry H. Holmes was a serial killer who took to Chicago quite easily. Larson traces how he came to Chicago and charmed a soon to be widow who then disappeared after their acquaintance. Holmes seemed to have an uncanny ability in attracting men and women alike. Married multiple times, he seemed to always be several steps ahead of the police, creditors, and others when they came looking for money or missing family members.
Larson eventually loops in the man who will bring down Holmes, Frank Geyer's sections of the book were so engrossing. This is a man who hoped to track down missing children who were last seen with Holmes, never understanding that the man had something missing in him that many others had remarked about before.
The writing was too clinical at times, though it's a nonfiction book, I would have liked to see more passion by the author. The flow was not great up front. I know a lot of reviewers got annoyed by the Burnham sections. They tended to get better at the halfway point once Larson included other real life people such as Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley, and many others. I think if he had split this book into two it would have many people exclaiming how good it was.
The setting of the book is Chicago and Larson does his best to set a stage of Chicago in the late 1800s. You could practically smell the stench while reading. Larson includes fires, strikes, and many other things that occurred in Chicago at the same time as Holmes and his infamy.
The ending needed a bit more oomph in my opinion. We hear about Holmes end, but I wanted to know more. Considered America's first serial killer, I wanted to know more about Holmes poor victims and what happened to the families after his death.
Burnham we find died in Germany in 1912, sixteen years after Holmes was sentenced to death.
Wow, so was Holmes Manson before Manson was a thing? Everyone talks about how he was able to attract women and men to him. I feel so bad for these women you are hearing about who were taking in by the guy who then murdered them, and sold their skeletons for a profit to medical schools.
Barnham seems to be going through some bad luck trying to get the World's Fair design going.
The sections on Holmes though are eye opening and still are more intriguing to me as a true crime reader. Larson makes you feel as if you are standing besides these people and have the ever elusive and inhumane Holmes peering into you.
Perfect read for Halloween Bingo though.