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Thursday, January 31, 2013


Erik Larson is most famous for his book Devil in the White City, but that wasn't the one sitting on the free books table at my office. Thunderstruck tells two stories, which don't seem particularly intertwined until the very end of the book, when what had theretofore been a somewhat tedious examination becomes a gripping potboiler.

Thunderstruck forms around two men, Guglielmo Marconi, the man who invented wireless telegraphy, and Hawley Harvey Crippen, an American expatriate who committed one of the most infamous British murders this side of Jack the Ripper.

One of the problems with the book's construction is that Marconi's story takes more time to develop, as his technology experiences many setbacks in its infancy, as well as serious challenges from the world's scientific community. Crippen is really only notable for one act, but in the name of trying to parallel the stories his sections can seem rather padded. After going through Crippen's background, Larson pores over a few years of his life in excruciating detail. It is much more interesting to read about the doubt surrounding Marconi and his wireless, though even that tale could often get bogged down and repetitive.

Thunderstruck gives the distinct impression that it would be much better as a long-ish magazine article than as a full-fledged book. Larson over-reaches in trying to maintain the reader's attention through constant use of foreshadowing via phrases like "more on that later" or "that would have sever consequences, as we shall see." Overall, the book may be worth reading almost solely for the thrilling last section, which ties together the two threads and tells a story that actually is quite fascinating, how wireless communication helped catch a notorious criminal while the world watched on in suspense.

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