The perspective switches back to the present, to Burnham’s foot pain. The rumbling deck reminds him that despite the lavish efforts to make the cruise seem like a palace, he is still on a ship in the middle of the ocean. The steward returns and explains that Millet’s ship has had an accident. However, the Olympic is en route to help, and Burnham imagines himself exchanging stories with Millet soon.
The author’s note is important because Larson tells us directly what the forthcoming story is about in the broadest sense: the struggle between good and evil, personified by an architect and a murderer. The central question of the book asks why some people use their minds to incredible ends, and others use their minds for destruction. By the end of the prologue, Larson has outlined the entire book. He introduces Daniel H. Burnham as the protagonist and H. H. Holmes as the antagonist, Frank Millet as Burnham’s friend and professional ally, and the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, or World’s Fair, as the central event. Ironically, the prologue begins as an epilogue, as it takes place after the book’s main story. Larson primes us for the story by explaining how it ends. The reader’s first impression of the Fair is a wondrous and exotic meeting of the minds, but there is also a dark, unnamed character who will wreak havoc in the midst of this magical “White City.”
One can reasonably deduce that the prologue takes place on the day the Titanic sinks. The Titanic is widely known to be the greatest historic ocean tragedy, and the largest passenger vessel of its time. Assuming the reader makes this connection, they will realize that Frank Millet probably drowns, and Burnham will never sit and joke with Millet as he imagines. One key characteristic of Larson’s writing style is that he tempts us with the story by adding details that will not be put into context until later. For example, he mentions an “assassin” who ruins the Fair’s closing ceremony, enticing readers to wonder what happened. Larson also mirrors the tension in the story with the way he divides his paragraphs in the prologue. Burnham learns that his telegraph could not be delivered and sends the steward back to find out why. Instead of resolving the question, Larson changes the focus to Millet and the Fair, and he ends his description of the murderer by hinting at something supernatural before switching back to the present.
Burnham is a lover of fine things who has worked hard in his life. He enjoys the “opulence of the ship” despite his foot pain. He seems content that the pain indicates he is nearing the end of his life, and is not interested in prolonging his life when he has “done his work and done it pretty well.” We may consider how this informs the inherent goodness that he represents. This mention of Burnham’s work ethic suggests that in comparing good and evil, Burnham’s value lies in the fact that he has worked hard and always done the best he could.