Alec Michod was a little unnerved when a friend told him that a bookstore clerk had called his new novel, The White City, a rip-off of Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City. But he wasn't really surprised. Both books are set during the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893; both have at their core a serial killer who roamed Daniel Burnham's plaster metropolis, the White City. Larson's nonfiction account of the fair and its notorious murderer, H.H. Holmes, came out last February, almost a year before Michod's novel was scheduled to be published by St. Martin's Press. When he heard of the book, months before it hit the streets, Michod says he "was filled with dread." It didn't help that Devil soon became a best-seller, and that Tom Cruise bought the film rights. "Nobody in Hollywood will touch my book," says Michod, "and it seems to have skewed some of the early reviewers--you know, maybe I'm 'jumping on the bandwagon.'"
Michod grew up in Lincoln Park and says he got the idea for his story as an undergrad at the University of Chicago, during days spent poking around in the stacks of the Regenstein Library and wandering the Midway Plaisance and Jackson Park. "Before I knew much about the White City I had a visual and visceral understanding of it," he says. "The space had seeped in." He studied the world's fair as part of the school's humanities requirement and in the library he found a copy of Joseph Kirkland and John Moses's 1895 History of Chicago, published in the wake of the fair, and revisited it many times, taking notes on what he learned. But at the time he was also writing "really bad poetry" and reading David Foster Wallace. "The world's fair of 1893," he says, "was the last thing I thought would be a good thing to set a novel on."
After he graduated in 1997, he packed his notes away and moved to New York to attend Columbia University's creative writing program and write "a memoir-of-my-urban-discontent type of thing." He didn't return to his White City research until his final year of grad school, when he came across his old notes and had an idea. "I saw the image of a boy," he says, "who, while at the fair with his family, wanders off and is approached by a potentially shady character--a man in a black hat." He started writing what became the first chapter of The White City, and after getting some positive feedback, kept on going.
He drew on his own family's Chicago roots to help set the scene. His paternal grandfather grew up in Morgan Park and spent much of his youth at the White City Amusement Park, on South Park and 63rd. A great-grandmother, one of the first women to receive an advanced degree from the newly established University of Chicago, was the inspiration for his main character, Dr. Elizabeth Handley. In the novel she's an early forensic psychologist and the first woman to receive a PhD in psychology from William James's Harvard. She uses unorthodox techniques to help find the killer--wondering about his upbringing, refusing to see him as simply "evil"--that her fellow detectives find threatening.
Michod began work on the novel in earnest in 1999 and sold the manuscript to St. Martin's in 2002. He waited until his novel was typeset to read Larson's account. When he finally did, he liked it. "I didn't freak out or think it would be a big problem, but it seems like now it has become something more of an impediment."
The similarities between the two books are superficial. Though Michod's is fiction and Larson's is not, the primary difference is conceptual: Larson interweaves the circumstances and machinations of Holmes (believed to be America's first serial killer) with an account of the challenges Burnham encountered while building his utopia. Michod uses the idea of a serial killer as a bogeyman taunting the privileged classes to help explain a world quickly changing without their consent.
Michod's elusive villain, Hannibal Skurlock, sprang completely from his imagination. "When I first started writing this book, I didn't know about the real-life killer H.H. Holmes," he says. But his research had turned up the information that children went missing from the fair all the time. That, coupled with his notion that the fair was "one of the first and most important moments in American history that legitimized the crowd," made a serial killer seem logical.
In town to publicize his novel, his fears have been somewhat assuaged. At two well-attended bookstore readings earlier this week, no one mentioned the Larson book, and Michod is sanguine about his bad timing. "After a few close friends talked me down [from my initial anxiety], I figured it could only be a good thing."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David Needleman.