Erik Larson sees history a little differently. He takes the big picture ― a hurricane, a war, a World's Fair ― and then narrows his view to a smaller story, something a bit more on the sidelines. He lets the two stories run side by side until they intersect, sometimes violently. Then he weaves the two narratives together into one strongly compelling history that I dare you to put down.
The Devil in the White City
The 1892-93 World's Columbian Exposition ― also known as the Chicago World's Fair ― featured pavilions from 46 countries full of amazing wonders and new inventions that awed and inspired attendees.
Buildings were designed by titans of the architectural world, using so much white stucco and marble that the main Court of Honor was nicknamed the White City. Anything seemed possible ― machinery powered by new electrical currents, the very first moving pictures, the original Ferris wheel. Everyone in the country wanted to to see the amazing sights and trains were flooded with passengers eager to be the first in line. Many of them were young women, exhilarated by the promise of freedom in a new modern age.
Behind the magic and entertainment was a darker story. The Fair was disorganized and plagued by a lack of funds and workers' strikes. The chaos, and the influx of young and unchaperoned women, offered an unexpected boon to young Dr. H.H. Holmes, a serial killer with a penchant for architecture, too. But his most famous building would be known as Murder Castle. (2004 - Knopf Doubleday)
In the Garden of Beasts
This is the newest of Larson's histories, one that interestingly also begins in Chicago.
William Dodd was a long-time professor at the University of Chicago, serving as the head of the history department and working quietly toward retirement.
His dream, though, was to finish his book, a multi-volume series with a title only a professor could love ― The Rise and Fall of the Old South. Dodd's chance comes when, out of the blue, President Roosevelt offers him the role of ambassador to Germany. Oh, did I not mention that the year is 1933?
Dodd readily accepts. He speaks fluent German, after all, and he imagines that the easy diplomatic schedule will offer him plenty of time to write. So he packs up his household, which includes his wife and two grown children, and heads for Berlin. His son and daughter throw themselves wholeheartedly into the whirlwind of parties and gaiety that marked that German city in the '30s, refusing to believe the rumors they hear about their new friends, including Goebbels and Goring. But we all know how this story ends. Dodd now has to navigate a minefield of diplomacy, and somehow must convince his bosses in the State Department that the threat from the new German government is all too real. (2011 - Random House)
This is a story about a race against time and the book itself keeps a breathless pace.
There is Guglielmo Marconi, rushing to introduce a new and amazing means of communication that requires no wires. He is trying to outpace his competition and the skeptics that threaten to end his venture before it gets off the ground.
Then there is Dr. Harvey Crippen, a kind and sweet man who wouldn't hurt a fly ― until he murdered his wife. Now he's on the run with his mistress, who is disguised as a boy. They board a ship to Canada, safe in the knowledge that they will never be caught. And then Marconi's invention crackles to life.
That's where the final race comes in, as Scotland Yard and a bevy of excited reporters race to catch Crippen before he vanishes into the wilderness of North America.
For the first time, newspaper readers around the world are able to follow a "live" story as it happens, and the excitement starts the first media feeding frenzy. (2007 - Random House)