Sometime around 1998 I discovered a paragraph or two about the killer Herman Mudgett on some amateur websites, the kind of seat-of-the-pants efforts that consigned them to early webdeaths. They offered measly details about Mudgetts appearance and his castle, but the rousing story arc was there; A fiendish charlatan preying on travelers trekking to Chicago to see the 1893 Worlds Fair, followed by a chase and his "castle" in flames. The details were sparse but they had the intended effect; they were spine-tingling. A lack of photos kept the imagery just out of reach. It was tantalizing to wonder what the castle looked like. Was it something to compete with Chicago's contemporaneous Potter Palmer castle? How had Mudgett's castle escaped mention in all the Chicago architecture histories I'd read? How had Mudgett fallen from the collective memory of a city and a nation, while Lizzie Borden's parents made their bloody exit and she remains notorious to this day? It was like the kids in A Nightmare on Elm Street, growing up oblivious about Freddy Krueger, what he'd done, and what their parents had in turn done to him.
The re-emergence of the Mudgett narrative in the last 5 years has been disappointing. None of these efforts have caught my imagination like those junky retellings where I first learned about him. I'd long ago accepted that Mudgetts "castle" was outwardly just an unremarkable 3-story corner store. The recent best seller, Devil in the White City (about the same topic), had narrative problems that continue here. Relievedly absent is that books excruciating A/B storyline structure, but just as D.I.T.W.C. foundered and got lost in insurance schemes, location shifts, and a rollcall of lesser figures, so does this.
It's the first time the story is told with imagery. One would think that the real opportunity here was the chance to envision those things that we haven't seen till now, and what is really unique about the case. The material should benefit from diagrams and graphics. But it just didn't come to life for me. In other titles in the series Geary's fastidious research and factuality are what make them compelling, here the facts concern the least interesting aspects of the crime: ancillary pawns that Mudgett encountered, and documentation of what he confessed after the fact. There's still way too little about the house. If you wrote about Sarah Winchester, would you start with her very factual checkbook entries? The story requires streamlining. As I read, I became impatient; how much longer would these uninteresting cross-country switcharoos continue? When would the castle and bodies show up? I wished Geary had consigned more of the late victims and shadowy flunkies to anonymity. For me the story IS Mudgett's house, and the way it's design assisted in the dispatch of victims. He saves those details for quite late in the story and then presents them in unpeopled tableaux. There is no horror per se. Worst of all, nearly all the victims simply disappear between panels in the drawings. The tease just goes on too long. Insurance claims, swindles, and train rides aren't especially frightening when visualized.
Unhelpful also is the delineation of "secret" rooms which are drawn exactly like the non-secret rooms you use all day. (How secret can they be..? the door's right there.) Likewise for callouts naming some of the castle's secrets which are not self-explanatory and never make it into the narrative. (The Maze, Five Door Room, Sealed Room, The Hanging Blind Room & Mysterious Closed Room...??!!)
Mudgett is just one of several deviate serial killers associated with Chicago (along with John Wayne Gacy, Larry Eyler, Leopold & Loeb and Richard Speck. And Jeffrey Dahmer snared some of his victims at Carols Speakeasy on Halsted, another Chicago location erased from the collective memory) Makes you wonder if there's something in the water.
This is my 4th title in the series. It is my 4th favorite.