Erik Larson’s 2003 volume “The Devil in the White City” is as fine a historical true crime tale as I’ve run across. He has a later book written on a similar pattern that I haven’t yet read, but I would be inclined to believe it is also marvelous. Larson’s approach to “The Devil” is to track the life arc of a murderer during an event of large historical significance. In this case, that’s the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, the “White City” referred to in the title. The murderer is man who used the draw of the fair to isolate and dismember one young woman after another --- the number apparently never totally determined. Larson did an immense amount of research and yet stepped back from that effort enough to craft a thoroughly readable and well-integrated story that moves along almost effortlessly. It’s a gem.
Now for “24 Days: How Two Wall Street Journal Reporters Uncovered the Lies that Destroyed Faith in Corporate America.” In this fascinating study of white collar crime, reporters Rebecca Smith and John R. Emshwiller describe in detail how they helped make the criminal excesses of the top executives at Enron the kind of front page news that brought the company crashing down. This is a story of how good journalism works, whether you like it or not --- and clearly a number of Enron executives, employees and stockholders would like to blame the media for what happened to them. Jeff Skilling, the ex-Enron CEO who is now serving time, tried that “run on the bank” defense when he testified before Congress. But Enron was a house of cards that was built to crash. For a time, before it was exposed, the energy company seemed to be a monster that was capable of bankrupting the state of California. Smith and Emshwiller didn’t actually break the story on their own. But they had been working on it for months so that they were able to provide critical background details when the company came out with its duplicitous and disastrous third-quarter earnings report on Oct. 16, 2001. The average reader won’t understand all of the details of the Enron scams. Neither did the reporters. But anyone who works through this book will come away with a sense of how modern accounting can hide a massive ponzi scheme. Read it and learn.