Thunderstruck by Erik Larson: B

From the back cover:
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.

Thunderstruck evokes the dynamism of those years when great shipping companies competed to build the biggest, fastest ocean liners, scientific advances dazzled the public, 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.

Gripping from the first word 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.

As in The Devil in the White City, Thunderstruck offers parallel tales of highest achievement and foulest crime. The book begins by showing how the invention of wireless telegraphy will be responsible, in 1910, for the capture of wanted murderer Harvey Crippen who has fled England on a ship bound for Canada. This gives the reader a nice hook to be reading towards as the narrative then cycles back a dozen years or so to show how things all began.

While it’s interesting to follow the progress of wireless telegraphy and the deterioration of Crippen’s marriage, I felt that sometimes the author was a little too proud of including random details his research had unearthed. One particular instance that sticks in my mind is a description of the childhood home of Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of the wireless, down to the kind of plants that grew in the tubs that flanked the front door of the residence. He does, however, do a very good job describing the flawed personalities of those involved, particularly Marconi and his seeming inability to understand how his actions might hurt or impact others.

While the history is a little slow going at times—I never really understood the technical and scientific issues—by virtue of its construction, it gets more exciting as it goes along. In fact, I’d venture to say that the final chapters, featuring a Scotland Yard detective who hops a fast steamer in an attempt to intercept Crippen’s vessel before he can reach Canada and the world’s breathless anticipation of the results, are positively riveting.

Too, I liked the epilogue that mentioned what the central players ended up doing with their lives after these exciting events. It’s unfortunate that the whole book ends with an irritatingly unanswered question, though. I’m not sure why the author thought that necessary or desirable.

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