Tuesday, January 28, 2014

History Whodunnits

By Jeff Burns

            Are you  a mystery buff?  There are few mystery writers who can imagine plots as complex and intriguing as real-life murder mysteries.  To paraphrase, Truth is always more interesting than fiction.  Here are four books you might enjoy.
            The Devil in the White City: A Saga of Magic and Murder at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson tells two great stories at once.  First, the Columbian Exposition of 1893 is brought to life, from conception to fruition.  It was a feat of architectural and design genius, and a triumph of civic boosterism that made Chicago into a first-tier city.  The other story is that of H.H. Holmes, sometimes called America’s first serial killer.  Holmes built a boardinghouse for visitors flocking to the world’s fair; unfortunately, it was really a human slaughterhouse.

            New York City in 1897 was the scene of a fierce battle between the two greatest titans ever to publish newspapers:  Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst.  Their newspapers regularly outdid each other with titillating headlines and stories of sex and murder.  One murder in particular seemed ready-made for the conflict.  Paul Collins’ The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City & Sparked the Tabloid Wars tells the story of the dismembered body and the love triangle that galvanized the city’s attention.

            Fast forward a few decades and half way around the world to China during the Japanese invasion and occupation and you find Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China by Paul French.  A British schoolgirl, the daughter of a diplomat is murdered in 1937.  Her father, a Chinese detective, and a British detective all lead investigations which reveal that she led a double life.  The book is a fascinating account of the foreign community in Peking, diplomats, businessmen, shady characters, Russians who fled the Bolshevik Revolution, among others, and how they and the Chinese dealt with the Japanese invasion. 

            Douglas Preston is a best-selling author (alone and with Preston Child) of numerous mysteries, usually with a supernatural bent.  However, in 2000, he found himself embroiled in a string of murders and attacks around Florence Italy, as a suspect.  In The Monster of Florence, he investigates the murders and details his involvement.

      Happy sleuthing!

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