THE ELECTRIFYING FALL OF RAINBOW CITY: SPECTACLE AND ASSASSINATION AT THE 1901 WORLD’S FAIR

In the style of Erik Larson’s entertaining history of Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition, “The Devil In The White City” (Crown, 2003), Maine author Margaret Creighton’s latest nonfiction book captures all the glamour, glitz and gloom of Buffalo’s fabulous and tragic Pan-American Exposition eight years later in 1901.

“The Electrifying Fall Of Rainbow City,” Creighton’s fifth book, is a gripping story of Buffalo’s desperate attempt to be recognized as an economic and cultural powerhouse, hoping its exposition will eclipse Chicago’s stunning success.

Creighton is a history professor at Bates College in Lewiston.

As she relates, Buffalo’s six-month-long (May-November) Pan-American Exposition (think world’s fair) was a bold and risky undertaking — lavish, expensive and controversial — as it shamelessly trumpeted American prosperity, military might, technology, imperialism and cultural superiority.

She tells of the exposition’s creation, complex financing, elaborate exhibits and shows, including the garish and tawdry Lane of Laughter, the amusement park of rides and sideshow freaks. Shows included Apache war chief Geronimo on display, the world’s tiniest woman, weddings staged in the lions’ cage and the explosive act of the “human bomb.”

However, among the laughing crowds, con artists, hucksters and charlatans, an assassin waits for President William McKinley to make his expected appearance. Creighton deftly weaves the stories of the assassin, Leon Czolgosz, and the president, with other larger-than-life characters like Frank Bostock, an animal show promoter known as the Animal King, along with Annie Edson Taylor, the first woman to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and live.

Creighton also wisely exposes the dark side of Buffalo’s exposition — the abuse of circus animals, the mistreatment of entertainers and the denigration of non-white, native peoples and their cultures.

But this is history — it’s fascinating, but not pretty.

 

DEATH AT ST. VEDAST: A BIANCA GODDARD MYSTERY

The year is 1543, and London doesn’t smell any better and certainly isn’t any safer than it was in Mary Lawrence’s first two historical mysteries featuring Bianca Goddard, a young woman who makes up “medicinals and physicks” for the poor.

“Death At St. Vedast” is Maine author Lawrence’s third novel in this original and intriguing mystery series. Her first novel, “The Alchemist’s Daughter,” gained well-deserved recognition from Suspense Magazine as one of the “Best Books of 2015.” And this one is even better.

Historical novels of any genre (drama, mystery, etc.) face three daunting challenges: They must be accurate with color, detail and atmosphere. Lawrence hits all three targets perfectly, and provides a suspenseful, gripping mystery, too.

Bianca and her apprentice silversmith husband, John, have just moved from their hovel to live with Boisvert, the silversmith, who is soon to marry a rich widow. It is winter, bitterly cold and death awaits.

When an anonymous, pregnant young woman jumps to her death from the roof of St. Vedast church, the constable thinks it’s suicide, the parishioners think it’s the Devil’s work, and Bianca suspects something else. Several days later, at Boisvert’s wedding, his bride suddenly drops dead and many factors don’t add up, causing Bianca to conduct her own investigation.

Poison might be the link, but the source and a motive are not clear. A bitter feud between the bakers’ guilds, jealousy and greed with the goldsmiths’ guild, strange activity at St. Vedast, the schemes of a corrupt solicitor and great fortunes at risk all complicate Bianca’s investigation, providing numerous suspects and motives, all leading Bianca and John into danger.

Multiple murder is afoot here, but Bianca is smart, bold and courageous, risking all, and the conclusion is a nice piece of detective work.

Bill Bushnell lives and writes in Harpswell.