In 1890 Chicago, against stiff opposition from other American cities, was selected to be the venue for the planned World Fair to mark the four hundredth centenary of Columbus landing on American soil. Choosing the city to host the fair was the easy part, now a committee had to be formed to where in Chicago the fair was to be built, select architects, decide styles, do extensive landscaping, an amazing amount of building, create something iconic that stun the world in the same way that Eiffel's Tower at the Paris exposition the year before had - and all in two years.
Larson is one of those writers who could probably make the designing of a match box interesting, he has the knack of describing technicalities in a way that the laywoman can understand and be interested in without feeling that the matter has been over simplified, he's great at emphasising the human element involved in all these great projects, the frustration caused by the committee in charge dragging its feet over really important decisions, especially the vital one about exactly where in Chicago the fair was to the held. To say nothing of the rivalries, the upsets, the passion for getting things done and doing them as the architect intended, the disappointments and how hard it was sometimes for a bunch of often egotistical architects to work together. Then there were strikes, fires, appalling weather that kept on delaying work on constructing the various pavillions until it began to seem possible that there wouldn't be anything finished for the official opening day in October 1892. And they still hadn't found the riposte to the Eiffel Tower.
Interwoven with the story of the fair and its organiser and Chief architect Daniel Burnham are two darker threads, that of a crazy Irishman who thought he would be raised to high position on the city council and of HH Holmes, a prolific serial killer who seems to have killed because he enjoyed doing it.
This book is a great read anyway, brilliantly paced so that it some places it almost becomes a page turner but I think that it's particularly fascinating for a non-American who basically knew nothing about Holmes or the Chicago Fair - the Fair's answer to the Eiffel tower came as a genuine surprise and I loved the incidental facts like Annie Oakley becoming famous as a result of the fair and the impact of the innovatory use of mass electric street lighting.
I have read a number of Erik Larson books and enjoyed them all. He writes popular non-fiction books and reminds me the most of books by Simon Winchester and Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins. He often finds a particular person and focuses on that person's story (In the Garden of the Beasts focused on the life of the wild daughter of the last American ambassador to Germany before WWII, based on her diary; Isaac's Storm focused on the meteorologist who failed to anticipate the huge hurricane that hit Galveston, Texas in 1900). Usually it works; sometimes it feels forced, but still fun to read.
This particular book does not focus on one particular person and is better for it. Larson alternates chapters between the preparation and departure of the Lusitania and the preparation and departure of the U-boat that sunk it. We get to know both of their captains as well as many of the people on board the Lusitania. It's a bit of a painful read--the alternating chapters bring us closer and closer to the end we all know. And of course, once you've gotten to "know" someone, having them die in the sinking is sad. And a lot of people died.
It's interesting to see what decisions contributed to the sinking (including some decisions about speed and whether or not to have an escort and some design decisions that ended up being terrible). But I think Larson ends up making too much of the decisions. He comes close to arguing that the Admiralty did it on purpose so that American lives would be lost and the United States would come into the war sooner. I'm not convinced by that argument, but I've noticed that these kinds of arguments have started to appear more frequently in non-fiction books. I think Winchester's book on Krakatoa somehow tied the eruption to modern-day terrorism. The authors never seem to fully believe their arguments, so I'm afraid they are just required to make their work "relevant," which I don't think is necessary. Fortunately, I enjoy the books without that element. And this is one I ended up enjoying (except for the sad outcome) very much.