By JANET MASLIN
Published: February 10, 2003
THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY
Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair That Changed America
By Erik Larson
Illustrated. 447 pages. Crown Publishers. $25.95.
As part of his research for ''The Devil in the White City'' Erik Larson visited the part of Graceland cemetery where members of Chicago's turn-of-the-century elite are enshrined. As he puts it, ''On a crystalline fall day you can almost hear the tinkle of fine crystal, the rustle of silk and wool, almost smell the expensive cigars.''
Mr. Larson likes to embroider the past that way. So he relentlessly fuses history and entertainment to give this nonfiction book the dramatic effect of a novel, complete with abundant cross-cutting and foreshadowing. Ordinarily these might be alarming tactics, but in the case of this material they do the trick. Mr. Larson has written a dynamic, enveloping book filled with haunting, closely annotated information. And it doesn't hurt that this truth really is stranger than fiction.
''The Devil in the White City,'' a book as lively as its title, has the inspiration to combine two distantly related late-19th-century stories into a narrative that is anything but quaint. One describes planning and preparation for the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, and it holds an unexpected fascination. Mr. Larson is omnivorous enough to have collected data not only on the distinguished architects who collaborated on this vision but also notes that it featured a chocolate Venus de Milo and a 22,000-pound cheese.
The book's other path follows a prototypical American serial killer whose fictional counterparts are by now ubiquitous. He built and operated a conveniently located World's Fair Hotel, complete with walk-in vault, greased wooden chute and person-sized basement kiln. As for where this would lead, ''only Poe could have dreamed the rest.''
As the book illustrates, this historical moment was ideal for the man calling himself...
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