Book Review - Thunderstruck by Erik Larson
I finally got around to putting Thunderstruck by Erik Larson on my library hold list. I was divided on my liking of his last book (Devil In The White City), as I didn't think the two stories intersected very well. Since Thunderstruck is written in the same style, I wasn't sure whether this would be something I'd take to readily. But thankfully, this story blend made much more sense to me, as it covered a technology that changed how society would function.
The two stories involve Guglielmo Marconi and Hawley Crippen. Marconi is well-known as the father of wireless communication. Crippen is less known these days, but was quite the name in 1910. He was accused and convicted of murdering his wife via poisoning, and then vivisected the body to try and remove identifying characteristics. By everyone's account, he was a mild-mannered gentleman who gave his wife everything she wanted. But she was less than enthralled with him, using and abusing him to further her standing in the entertainment circles of London. She often threatened to leave Crippen, and in fact had appeared to when she disappeared. The story was told that she went to America to care for a sick relative. Many of her friends were a bit skeptical of her sudden departure, especially when Crippen's secretary started showing up in all of the wife's clothes and jewelry. They were even more disbelieving when news came that she had succumbed to illness while over there. They were able to get Scotland Yard on the case, which eventually lead to Crippen's capture and conviction.
Marconi's story is more familiar. With little education in the sciences, he created radio waves that would travel the "ether" and trigger devices that received them. This started out as something that worked over a matter of feet. Then it was miles. When he was able to communicate over a hundred miles to ships at sea, he decided the main goal would be to transmit transatlantic signals. This went against all the scientific thought of the time, and there were a number of rivals that were determined to destroy Marconi's business and reputation. Although he faced tremendous physical obstacles and spent the equivalent of millions of dollars, he eventually succeeded in his quest.
So how do these stories intersect? The ability to communicate with ships at sea via wireless is what lead to Crippen's downfall. He left London via ship to go to Canada to avoid discovery for his crime. His lover was dressed as a young boy and they traveled as father and son. But the captain became suspicious of the pair, knew the story of Crippen, and contacted London via wireless with his discovery. The London police were able to overtake the ship, arrive a day before Crippen's ship, and arrest him before he could escape. If not for Marconi's wireless, Crippen would have made it to Canada and preserved his freedom. Also, since the world was able to listen in on the transmissions, everyone was aware of the unfolding story... everyone, that is, but Crippen.
Larson did a good job in telling both stories. I personally found Crippen's story more interesting, but you really didn't see the intersection until the possibility of murder was raised. Once that part of the story came into play, Marconi's story was pretty much done. My only real disappointment was how Crippen's story came to a rather abrupt end. There had been so much detail prior to the shipboard capture. But the trial and execution wrapped up in just a few pages. There was no real examination of what Crippen might have been thinking, or how his last few days were spent. I would have preferred to see that captured in more detail. But even so, I enjoyed the read. I also learned just what Marconi did, and how his work changed the world as we know it.