My hometown is 100 miles west of Chicago in the middle of the corn fields. When I drove into the city for a ball game or the theater or the fine Italian food on Rush Street or the art museums or biking the Lakeshore or walking around Navy Pier or killing time before Ravinia, (There’s lots to do!) I remember those times my Mom accompanied me, and she’d throw a blanket over her head so she couldn’t see me maneuver down the Eisenhower Expressway to get to Michigan Avenue. I’ve never had a bad experience in Chicago, only lovely, romantic, fun times. It’s one of my favorite metropolitan cities in the world rivaling London, Sydney, and Rome.
When it comes to books, three that describe the historical importance of Chicago are Devil in the White City, Sister Carrie, and The Jungle.
Erik Larson’s 2003 National Book Award finalist contribution tells about two historical events that occurred side by side, the making of the Chicago Exposition of 1893, and the killings at the hands of psychopath, H.H. Holmes. This non-fiction account appealed to me for many reasons. Generally, I enjoy studying the Gilded Age and the relationship between the powerful and the powerless. This time frame matched the time period and setting of my novel, The Knife with the Ivory Handle.
Larson received acclaim for his meticulously researched account. It documented two story lines, how architectural marvels transformed Chicago in the late 1800s and a nefarious serial killer, H.H. Holmes. I was eager to read about these two topics, however, it became clear to me that the drama surrounding the 1893 Chicago Exposition could not compete with America’s version of Jack the Ripper.
John Root and Daniel Burnham were partners and principal architects of the Chicago Exposition of 1893 along with Frederick Law Olmsted, landscape architect whiz of Central Park, NYC. Surrounding them were the barons of the Gilded Age in Chicago: Marshall Field, George Pullman, Louis Sullivan, Philip Armour, and Potter Palmer. Burnham’s charm and ambition created a fair that occupied over two hundred buildings in a square mile.
H. H. Holmes
Every chapter vacillated from Burnham to Holmes’s point of view. Instead of merging the two separate stories, the division created a competition for my attention. In the end, I found myself jumping ahead every other chapter to read about the psychological progression—or the ethical digression—of a maniac. What tendencies did Erik Larson give his killer to create a psychopath able to calmly fool everyone he met? Holmes was often described with bright blue eyes, extreme handsomeness and charm. Holmes was methodical. He found beautiful women irresistible. He would charm them into loving them. Then they would go missing. He quickly assumed wealth as a pharmacist, various scams, and money inherited by women he married. In anticipation of opportunities provided by the Chicago Exposition, he built a hotel to accommodate his future victims.
It was estimated he killed 36-200 women. Holmes would ship the remains to a third-party, who sold the body to medical houses be used as a cadaver. Larson described Holmes as an amphibian which was keenly accurate. Larson’s killer was cold, calculating, and unfeeling, and Larson refrained from gore and descriptions of the horror of the kill. I think Larson did this to match the other story of how Chicago architects competed to transform the midwest city into a metropolis to rival New York City. It wasn’t a surprise to me to learn that Larson’s background was in journalism.
Well, what does this have to do with Leonardo DiCaprio?
Leonardo DiCaprio and his production company, Appian Way, along with Double Features picked up the rights to The Devil in the White City in 2011. He is slotted to play the killer Holmes. DiCaprio hired up-and-coming screenwriter, Graham Moore, to complete the script. Recently, Warner Bros. picked up the rights for the book and Appian Way will produce the feature. Leo is off on a long break, and I hope when he returns to work, he will get down to making this film. I’m looking forward to Gatsby next week and The Wolf on Wall Street out in he fall of 2013. This will be the fifth time Leo and Martin Scorsese collaborate. I can’t wait!
The Windy City has a sordid, fascinating past. What do you like best about Chicago? Do you think Leonardo DiCaprio can pull off playing a serial killer? How on earth will Graham Moore create an element of humanity in a psychopath for us to care?