(Audio version) This is a steady performance of a book that, while gripping in its content and crisply paced, isn't quite a gold mine for an audio performer. It relies on journalistic narration and includes almost no quotes, so there isn't much chance for interesting characterization. But it is excellent nonfiction, chronicling the hurly-burly planning and construction of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair (which did, as the title suggests, include building what amounted to an entire city) and a cruelly calculating sociopath who used the event's tumult and crowds to serve his homicidal compulsion. Goldwyn is an experienced narrator with a keen dramatic sense, and his resonant voice is well-suited to the project. Music is used only sparingly, but the few subdued, creepy bars Goldwyn reads over in the beginning do an excellent job of creating atmosphere for a tale that is subtle but often genuinely unsettling. Listeners will also be fascinated by descriptions of the sheer logistics of the fair itself, which serve as not only carefully crafted and informative history, but also as welcome breaks from the macabre and relentless contrivances of the killer. In all, it's a polished presentation of an intriguing book that outlines the heights of human imagination and perseverance against the depths of our depravity.
Before the turn of the 20th century, a city emerged seemingly out of the ash of then dangerous Chicago, a dirty, grimy, teeming place ravaged by urban problems. Daniel Burnham, the main innovator of the White City of the 1892 World's Fair, made certain that it became the antithesis of its parent city, born to glow and gleam with all that the new century would soon offer. While the great city of the future was hastily being planned and built, the specially equipped apartment building of one Herman Webster Mudgett was also being constructed. Living in a nearby suburb and walking among the hundreds of thousands of visitors who would eventually attend the fair, Mudgett, a doctor by profession more commonly known as H.H. Holmes, was really an early serial killer who preyed on the young female fair goers pouring into Chicago. Using the fair as a means of attracting guests to a sparsely furnished "castle" where they ultimately met their end, Holmes committed murder, fraud, and numerous other crimes seemingly without detection until his arrest in 1894. Both intimate and engrossing, Larson's (Isaac's Storm) elegant historical account unfolds with the painstaking calm of a Holmes murder. Although both subjects have been treated before, paralleling them here is unique. Highly recommended. —Rachel Collins
A vivid account of the tragedies and triumphs of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and the concurrent depravities of America’s first serial killer. In roughly alternating chapters, former Wall Street Journal reporter Larson (Isaac’s Storm, 1999, etc.) tells the stories of Daniel H. Burnham, chief planner and architect of exposition, and Dr. Henry Howard Holmes, whose rambling World’s Fair Hotel, just a short streetcar ride away, housed windowless rooms, a gas chamber, secret chutes, and a basement crematory. The contrast in these accomplishments of determined human endeavor could not be more stark--or chilling. Burnham assembled what a contemporary called "the greatest meeting of artists since the 15th century" to turn the wasteland of Chicago’s swampy Jackson Park into the ephemeral White City, which enthralled nearly 28 million visitors in a single summer. Overcoming gargantuan obstacles--politically entangled delays, labor unrest, an economic panic, and a fierce Chicago winter--to say nothing of the architectural challenges, Burnham and his colleagues, including Frederick Law Olmsted, produced their marvel in just over two years. The fair was a city unto itself, the first to make wide-scale use of alternating current to illuminate its 200,000 incandescent bulbs. Spectacular engineering feats included Ferris’s gigantic wheel, intended to "out-Eiffel Eiffel," and, ominously, the latest example of Krupp’s artillery, "breathing of blood and carnage." Dr. Holmes, a frequent visitor to the fair, was a consummate swindler and lady-killer who secured his victims’ trust through "courteous, audacious rascality." Most were comely young women, and estimates of their total ranged from the nine whose bodies (or parts thereof) were recovered to nearly 200. Larson does a superb job outlining this "ineluctable conflict between good and evil, daylight and darkness" Gripping drama, captured with a reporter’s nose for a good story and a novelist’s flair for telling it.
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