I didn’t expect this one to have me hooked, and to the extent that I was interested, I’ll admit that it was initially mostly in the true crime aspect. I didn’t know much about H.H. Holmes’ actual crimes, just a vague sense of notoriety, so that was really what I was interested in — the design of the World’s Fair, with all the architecture and infrastructure decisions, sounded kind of boring to me. I wasn’t really sure about the juxtaposition of the two, either: it seemed like the story of the World’s Fair would be boring in comparison with the horrors of Holmes’ crimes.
In the end, I was more interested in the World’s Fair sections, and I don’t know why. Partly the people discussed, I guess: they had a powerful vision, they had determination, and they achieved a lot in a very short time. Regardless of the topic, that kind of drive can be fascinating. And Larson’s writing works for me — it feels crisp and to the point, and evokes feelings and motivations that the people involved may have felt without feeling like he was going out on any limbs or fantasizing too much.
I think in the end, despite my initial sense that H.H. Holmes would be more interesting, the thing is that psychopaths are psychopaths. I’ve read about psychopaths before, but the challenges of organising the Chicago World’s Fair were a one-off thing that nobody has or could repeat in quite the same way.