The year was 1900. The place: Galveston, Texas, a growing town with dreams of becoming the next Houston. The guy: Isaac Cline, resident meteorologist for the U.S. Weather Bureau, sent to Galveston with explicit instructions to establish a state-wide weather service, while simultaneously improving the perception of the bureau as—gasp—ineffective at predicting the weather.
So much for that plan. On September 8, Galveston is hit by an enormous hurricane, which over the course of the day destroys the town, kills more than 6,000 people—some estimates put the total as high as 12,000—and lends both anecdotal and scientific evidence to what was only recently proven again along the East Coast: hurricanes are serious business.
In the grand scheme of things, it’s unsurprising that I’ve been interested to read In the Garden of Beasts. For one, it’s about Nazis (indirectly; it’s about the U.S. ambassador to Germany and his family, living in Berlin during Hitler’s ascent to power) and for two, it’s by Erik Larson, whose ability to turn nonfiction into compelling narrative I praised in my review of Devil in the White City. For three, the book was moved to the top of my list after my mom demanded I return it to her over Christmas (I borrowed it from her husband.) Because nothing puts my mom in the holiday spirit like Hitler.
This may very well the best nonfiction book I’ve ever read.
See, when I mentioned to friends that I was reading “The Devil in the White City,” I heard some resounding praise, but at least two people admitted they’d liked the book but never finished it. As someone who loathes not finishing books—even before this endeavor, I’d convinced myself that none of my half-read novels were abandoned so much as on hold—the possibility that I was about to embark upon a journey of which I’d grow bored halfway through was distressing. I pictured myself falling asleep to in-depth descriptions of 1890s Chicago, and waking up at 3 a.m. with drool on my glasses.
Thankfully that wasn’t the case.
The details of “Devil” simultaneously are and aren’t important. As a potential reader, you should know it follows two people during the time around Chicago’s 1893 hosting of the World’s Fair: the architect mastermind behind almost the entire event, and a serial killer who masqueraded as a businessman while preying on women in the same city. If you have some sort of niche affinity for Chicago history, this is definitely the book for you, but I would be remiss to pretend any interest in Chicago, architecture or history itself is a prerequisite for enjoying “The Devil in the White City.” Rather, the details are important only insomuch as there are tons of them. Every scene of every chapter is researched with such stunning thoroughness that “Devil” reads like a novel, and I found myself more than once stopping to consider the amount of research that must have gone into this book. (It doesn’t take much imagination: “Devil” has 390 endnotes, and its bibliography lists more than 130 sources). Perhaps the biggest testament to this breadth of work is the dichotomy between the two stories, which intersect only indirectly. Given America’s interest in true crime and the minds of criminals, I thought the story of H.H. Holmes, the killer, would be by far the more compelling of the two. Gas chambers, dissection, secret cellars full of mad scientist paraphernalia—this is the stuff of “Law & Order.” And indeed, Holmes’ story, phenomenally bolstered by excerpts from his own half-fabricated memoir, is riveting. Today, the idea of serial murder simply for the thrill of it seems borderline mundane, but in the late 1800s it was almost unheard of; Jack the Ripper had only recently made headlines. Perhaps this is why Holmes managed to dispose of nearly a dozen of his closer acquaintances without the police catching on (it was pursuit of insurance fraud that ultimately led authorities to discover his more heinous crimes).