Sin, fire, and murder run rampant in Michod’s Chicago


The wind pushes through Alec Michod’s first novel, “distressing the livestock and summoning up the soil,” setting in motion a breathtaking chase for a serial killer with a filleting knife (based on the real-life H.H. Holmes) at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.

Here is Chicago at its fattest moment. The rich eat reindeer fricassee, while the poor have vegetables that look like twigs. Angry meatpackers punch each other into pulp as Michod dismantles the American Money Dream and the White City becomes the “smoldering city,” with a gallows set up in front of the Art Institute (of all places!).

He creates such mysterious characters—like the one with mahogany hair and the mortician whose face is half paralyzed from a run-in with a grizzly—as well as an ever present queasiness, as evil precedes and follows wonder. The hunters and the hunted fly about in a breathless chase, past the Electricity Building, the chocolate Venus, and the 11-ton cheese, only to come upon the victims—the only still entities in the book—near the Movable Sidewalk and the Transportation Building.

Many of the characters seem almost too full of human failings. The wide-eyed boys are lost, muddy, disoriented; the adults, either mad with grief or partaking of Pernod or opium. Dr. Elizabeth Handley, the fearless, Harvard-educated forensic psychologist—who should be an inspiration for us all with her “free-associative intuition” and a mind “capable of high-level mathematics and bawdy barroom asides”—never eats, does not get there on time, then does, yet remains tongue-tied as the city burns orange with fire.