Chicago has been very good to Erik Larson, even though it greeted his latest visit with a nasty rain and temperatures more common to November than to mid-May, which was why we were talking in the bar of his downtown hotel rather than wandering city streets.
"Seattle weather," said Larson, referring to the place he has lived for many years.
Chicago gave Larson the 1893 World's Fair and two characters, architect Daniel Burnham and serial killer Dr. H.H. Holmes, which made his 2004 "Devil in the White City" a mega-best-seller.
"I just got the most recent figures: 2.3 million copies sold," he said, smiling. "Yes, Chicago has been very good to me."
The central characters of his latest book are also from Chicago, though the city plays a minor role because most of the action takes place in Berlin from 1933 to 1937.
"In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin" focuses on mild-mannered University of Chicago professor William E. Dodd, who became America's first ambassador to Hitler's Germany, and his flamboyant, flirtatious and enticing daughter Martha, who had been an assistant literary editor of this newspaper.
"I did not set out to do Chicago in a new book," Larson says, explaining how he came upon the Dodds after reading "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich." That was six years ago, while he was researching "Thunderstruck," published in 2007.
"William Dodd and Martha underwent real-life transformation in their first year in Berlin," Larson said. "They were like characters out of Grimm's fairy tales, in a forest that is growing darker and darker."
The book is another example of how skillfully Larson crafts his nonfiction. It is a model of meticulous research but also a masterpiece of compelling storytelling and vivid characters. This is a book at once enlightening and chilling.
We talked about other books and mutual author pals, and after a while he went upstairs to catch a nap before heading to a Saturday evening event at Anderson's Bookshop in Naperville. Sunday there was an afternoon talk/signing at Centuries & Sleuths bookstore in Forest Park.
"It was amazing," said Augie Aleksy, owner of the cozy Centuries & Sleuths. "We had more than 200 people. Chicago just loves Erik. The new book? I read it. I loved it. I actually think it's better than 'Devil.'"
"The research and writing was tough, almost heartbreaking at times," says Larson. "I wound up with a sort of low-grade depression caused by the realization that no one was paying enough attention to Hitler and the evil he was spreading; the thought that he could have been stopped before he..."
That depression is eased, one imagines, by the film version of "Devil" currently in the works, with Leonardo DiCaprio attached to star as Holmes.
"We are still waiting for a good script," said Larson, whose weekend Chicago visit was to be followed by stops in other places - Michigan; Philadelphia; Iowa City, Iowa; Dallas; Washington state - before returning here.
"I am a lousy flier," he says. "I am too tall for some planes. Don't like it. But I do, even in the social media world, like meeting and talking to people one-on-one."
Larson never discusses his upcoming projects but did offer, somewhat reluctantly and a bit sheepishly, that his next book is likely to be set in....
Care to have a guess?
Erik Larson will make the following Chicago-area appearances:
11:30 a.m. Monday, Union League Club of Chicago, 65 W. Jackson Blvd.
6 p.m. Monday, Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State St.
Noon Tuesday, University Club of Chicago, 76 E. Monroe St.
7 p.m. Tuesday, Barnes & Noble, 55 Old Orchard Center, Skokie.
For more information, visit eriklarsonbooks.com.