Review of Thunderstruck by Erik Larson Rating *****
Thunderstruck by Erik Larson tells two separate stories that alternate from chapter to chapter. The first story is that of Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of the wireless telegraph. The second story is that of Hawley Crippen and his involvement in the murder of his wife. The two stories don’t intersect until the final chapters.
Both stories hold the reader’s interest. As a former pilot, I was always amazed at how I could travel hundreds of miles an hour at 39,000 feet but still communicate with a person sitting in a building hundreds of miles away. Marconi never got to the point of transmitting voice messages, but his achievement was still remarkable for the time.
I listened to the audiobook version of the book. I don’t know if the printed version or eBook contained any diagrams or images, but I never quite grasped the technology that Marconi used to transmit morse code. What I do know is that Marconi took existing technology and tweaked it to achieve the results of wireless communication. Much of the book goes into the battles Marconi had with the inventors like Oliver Lodge
who claimed that Marconi hadn’t accomplished anything that hadn’t already been demonstrated.
The murder story is slow to develop. Crippen starts as a seller of patent medicine. He does well in that endeavor and lives a comfortable life. His wife, Belle, however, is a constant drain on his resources and patience. Belle longs to be a professional singer. Crippen supports his wife and lavishes her with fine clothes and jewelry. They live beyond their means. Eventually, the marriage deteriorates, and Crippen falls for a younger woman.
Marconi’s successes and failures keep the narrative going until Crippen and his mistress plan their escape to North America. This is where the two stories merge. While Crippen assumes that he has escaped without notice, the authorities use wireless communications to identify him and his mistress Ethel Le Neve, who is pretending to be a teenage boy.
While the two separate stories might seem like a plot device, the truth is that the capture of Crippen and Ethel made worldwide news, and the role that wireless played in their capture was significant.