An attempt to unmask an infamous mass murderer.
In this occasionally thrilling new biography of H.H. Holmes (1861-1896), who received renewed attention in 2003 when Erik Larson published The Devil in the White City, Mysterious Chicago tour guide and author Selzer (Just Kill Me, 2016, etc.) recharacterizes Holmes as a small-time con man who was likely guilty of a series of murders in Chicago. In his introduction, the author makes his argument clear. Holmes, he writes, is said to have killed more than 200 people in his “murder castle,” but he was only actually accused of killing one person at that location. Unfortunately, the author doesn’t make clear from the beginning that he believes Holmes killed many more people, with the other crimes occurring elsewhere. Immediately, Selzer launches into a history of Holmes the con man, and it is only a third of the way into the book that he begins to explore the other murders he suspects Holmes is guilty of committing. Selzer’s attempt to understand Holmes by delving deep into his early history of insurance and mortgage fraud and bigamy is initially intriguing on a psychoanalytical level, but it keeps the later portions of the story, which focus on the murders, from feeling like a natural part of the narrative. The author’s research is unquestionably impressive, and he effectively exposes how the Holmes legend became what it is today based mostly on conjecture and gossip. But for all the new information Selzer brings to light, large chunks of the story are plodding and confusing. Few readers will argue with the author’s assertion that it is the unfounded nature of the legends surrounding him for which Holmes is an intriguing figure, but a combination of disjointed storytelling and unnecessary minutiae slows the pace.
A passion for Holmes lore will lead to appreciation for the depth of background and lesser criminal exploits described in great detail, but the audience will remain limited.