There is nothing that can quite capture the public’s awareness like a particularly ghastly or high-profile homicide.
From Cain and Abel to O.J. and Nicole, murder and those who commit it fascinate and captivate
all strata of society. It is no surprise, then, that this macabre appeal should extend to literature. Erik Larson, award-winning author of “The Devil in the White City,” continues his rise to prominence in the true-crime genre with “Thunderstruck,” his latest work of narrative nonfiction.
As in his earlier work, however, Larson
goes beyond the typical confines of his field. “Thunderstruck” is the morbid tale of a particularly gruesome murder committed by the unassuming Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen
– but it is also the triumphant account of Guglielmo Marconi’s invention of the wireless telegram.
Crippen and Marconi offer readers a glimpse of both the acme of success and the nadir of despair. More than that, their stories
combine to paint a portrait of England on the eve of World War I that most historians
would be hard-pressed to equal either in poignancy or precision.
Meticulously researched, Larson’s book is a triumph of popular history; every chapter is crammed with detail and historical context. As a story, however, it lacks the punch and payoff of “The Devil in the White City.”
Dr. Crippen is a henpecked husband with a loving mistress and an extensive knowledge of poisons. Marconi is an ingenious
inventor with a competitive streak a mile wide and a penchant for burning bridges. For the first three-quarters of “Thunderstruck,” it is Marconi’s story that is suspenseful, as he strives to out-maneuver his rivals and become the first to transmit wireless communication across the Atlantic.
There is little room for doubt, however, that the focus will soon shift to Crippen – the pages almost drip with foreshadowing.
Though “Thunderstruck” strikes a good balance between the two stories for most of its 400 pages, Marconi is essentially
absent from the book as the Crippen chase mounts toward its climax. In fact, the long-awaited intersection of the two protagonists’ stories never really comes – the connection is tenuous at best.
With a supporting cast of characters that includes aging diplomats, idealistic spies, enterprising seamen and geniuses galore, “Thunderstruck” certainly does not lack in drama. What it is missing is a character readers can really get behind. Marconi is far too abrasive, and it is Crippen, the heartless murderer, who captures one’s sympathy.
Today, however, Marconi is worshipped as a Nobel Prize-winning inventor, one of the 20th century’s great scientists, while Crippen is consigned to the Gallery of Horrors at wax museums throughout the world.
Perhaps this is the essential point being made by “Thunderstruck” – this tendency of history to generalize and to, over time, wipe out all but the most basic characteristics of the men and women who make it.
Peter Chomko can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.