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Thunderstruck by Erik Larson

Written By: Word Nerd - May• 12•12


Erik Larson

Crown Publishing/non-fiction, historical

Release Date: 2006

A true story of love, murder, and the end of the world’s “great hush”.
In Thunderstruck, Erik Larson tells the interwoven stories of two men—Hawley Crippen, a very unlikely murderer, and Guglielmo Marconi, the obsessive creator of a seemingly supernatural means of communication—whose lives intersect during one of the greatest criminal chases of all time.
Set in Edwardian London and on the stormy coasts of Cornwall, Cape Cod, and Nova Scotia, Thunderstruck evokes the dynamism of those years when great shipping companies competed to build the biggest, fastest ocean liners, scientific advances dazzled the public with visions of a world transformed, and the rich outdid one another with ostentatious displays of wealth. Against this background, Marconi races against incredible odds and relentless skepticism to perfect his invention: the wireless, a prime catalyst for the emergence of the world we know today. Meanwhile, Crippen, “the kindest of men,” nearly commits the perfect crime.
With his superb narrative skills, Erik Larson guides these parallel narratives toward a relentlessly suspenseful meeting on the waters of the North Atlantic. Along the way, he tells of a sad and tragic love affair that was described on the front pages of newspapers around the world, a chief inspector who found himself strangely sympathetic to the killer and his lover, and a driven and compelling inventor who transformed the way we communicate. Thunderstruck presents a vibrant portrait of an era of séances, science, and fog, inhabited by inventors, magicians, and Scotland Yard detectives, all presided over by the amiable and fun-loving Edward VII as the world slid inevitably toward the first great war of the twentieth century. Gripping from the first page, and rich with fascinating detail about the time, the people, and the new inventions that connect and divide us, Thunderstruck is splendid narrative history from a master of the form.

I chose this book using my standard book selection criteria.  To whit, I was wandering around a used book store, scanning the covers in hopes of spying something worthy of further investigation.  The name “Erik Larson” caught my eye and I snagged the single copy off the shelf and added it to my purchases.  It was not until I got home that I even bothered to check out the book description, for I knew that the author of The Devil in the White City would not disappoint.

For a few pages, I wondered if I had made a terrible mistake.  The story of Guglielmo Marconi was interesting…to a point, and then my eyes rolled back into my head in boredom and frustration.  I don’t fault Larson for this- the technical information is dry and unexciting to someone who has absolutely no interest in the science behind wireless telegraphy.  I do know people who would salivate over the descriptions of towers built, coherers invented and Hertzian waves, but it was just a bit technical for me.

The second tale that Larson tells is an Edwardian London murder mystery with a meek homeopathic doctor, a larger than life America actress and a disguised dash across open waters to freedom.  Are you beginning to see what saved this book?  Admittedly, I was confused as to how the two stories connected.  At roughly the halfway point my husband asked what I was reading about and I tried to describe that it was about Marconi, and a murder, but Marconi wasn’t involved in the murder…he kept questioning how the stories related and I finally gave the exasperated reply, “I don’t know! But the two stories will intersect before the end of this book, that I know!”

I do not want to spoil the book for anyone, so I won’t reveal the connection.  However, I will say that Mr. Marconi (and his Board of Directors) owe a debt of gratitude to Dr. Hawley Crippen.  Dr. Crippen set in motion a chain of events that cemented Marconi’s dominance in the wireless market.

My verdict:  Read it! If you can get through the technical information, you will be rewarded by an exciting story that leaves you wondering if someone got away with murder.  Larson has a penchant for over-researching and shares many details that others might leave out, including a section of additional notes at the end of the book.  Did you know that Marconi and his wife were supposed to sail aboard the Titanic?  Were you aware that Edwardian hangmen had a “table of drops” to consult, ensuring that the condemned would drop exactly the right distance to cleanly break the neck without decapitation?  Lovely trivia abounds!

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