Thunderstruck

by Erik Larson

Hardcover, 2006

Call number

364.15 L

Collection

Publication

Crown (2006), Edition: 1, 480 pages

Description

A true story of love, murder, and the end of the world's "great hush." 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. Set in Edwardian London and on the stormy coasts of Cornwall, Cape Cod, and Nova Scotia, Thunderstruck evokes the dynamism of those years when great shipping companies competed to build the biggest, fastest ocean liners; scientific advances dazzled the public with visions of a world transformed; 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 murder. With his unparalleled narrative skills, Erik Larson guides us through a relentlessly suspenseful chase over the waters of the North Atlantic. Along the way, he tells of a sad and tragic love affair that was described on the front pages of newspapers around the world, a chief inspector who found himself strangely sympathetic to the killer and his lover, and a driven and compelling inventor who transformed the way we communicate.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member richardderus
It's an axiom that Great Men (and, one supposes, Great Women) are Unpleasant People. Larson's treatment of Guglielmo Marconi, great-great-great grandfather of the device you're reading this on, does nothing to dispel the miasma of meanness from him. What a rotten human being! How completely
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insensitive, how thoroughly obsessively devoted to his own self and comfort, what a complete rotter of a businessman!

Thank you, Guglielmo, for the gifts all that human wreckage you left behind have given us all. Rot in peace.

Then, at the precise opposite end of the emotional spectrum, lies the once-infamous, now largely forgotten, Dr. Hawley Crippen, who murdered his termagant of a wife (who *richly* deserved killing, being a female Marconi sans genius), so he could be with his little light-o-love. Didn't work out, needless to say, though if the Scotland Yard inspector had simply been told to go the hell away, the whole chase and capture and hanging might not have had to happen. There was no evidence of a killing, but the Inspector went on a fishing expedition in Crippen's basement--wouldn't be allowed today, not a chance!--and, well...he really did do it. Probably not alone, though....

Well, anyway, you've read The Devil in the White City and Isaac's Storm, so I needn't belabor the point that Larson has a magpie's eye for shiny things, bringing to the nest of the book a trove of odd and telling details about Edwardian London, about the nature of human relationships, about the science of radio waves as it was being discovered; most of all, he brings us characters we feel some connection to, and can really invest in. I know how the book ends before I pick it up, but I find myself wanting Crippen to get away with it and pulling for him and Ethel to make it to Canada *this time*.

They don't. Shame, that.

Wrap yourself in this big, warm greatcoat of a book that transports you back to an optimistic, doomed, bright summer afternoon of a time. It's oodles of fun, if you take it slowly and don't try to gulp it down. It's too big to swallow whole, and half the fun is setting the book down and savoring the images of this vanished world. Recommended to all but the most history-phobic.
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LibraryThing member PghDragonMan
Thunderstruck, by Erik Larson, is the story of the unlikely connection between Dr. Crippen, an early Twentieth Century American living in London accused of murdering his wife, and Guglielmo Marconi, the Italian developer of wireless telegraphy living in England. The connection is more than just
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geography, but both geographic proximity and distance play an important role in the story. In what has become Larson’s trademark style, this is not a work of historical fiction, but history told as a narrative resembling a novel.

With today’s world shrunk to the size of your computer monitor by the Internet and WiFi connections at almost any gathering spot and cell phones capable of operating in almost all areas, very few of us consider just how revolutionary wireless telegraphy was when it came into being. A transatlantic cable already existed between North America and Europe, but you had to be physically connected to it in order to communicate through it. Marconi cut that tie and enabled us to roam, albeit in a limited way, and still communicate over long distances. This was quite a feat for its day and I doubt even those early developers, as Larson points out, Marconi did have competition, could have foreseen where this would someday lead us.

Crime has always been with us and will probably remain with us until humankind ceases to exist. That the seeming miracle of wireless telegraphy was involved with the largest manhunt of that time for one of the most sought after killers, was one of the primary reasons wireless telegraphy became so important a development. It also marked the beginning of competition between communications media to report a breaking story as it was happening, a trend that continues today. The slow speed pursuit of OJ Simpson’s Bronco being covered by all the television stations in the US was the direct descendant of the newspapers of the time covering the Scotland Yard closing in the killer fleeing Europe by using a faster boat to beat him to port in North America.

While hardly a thrilling detective story, the story behind Dr. Crippen helps keep the reader interested. By concentrating on the rivalry between the small fraternity of scientists seeking to develop wireless communication and Marconi’s idiosyncrasies, Larson keeps the reader turning through the pages. We are given many insights to both of these enigmatic historical personages. While some science of the time is introduced, the forensic techniques, while as revolutionary for their time as budding sciences of electronics and electrical engineering, are very quaint and further serve to remind us of how far we’ve come in a little more than a century.

Excellent reading for those fond of true crimes or biographies. Larson’s easy style will also attract fans of historical fiction, although this particular story is non-fiction. It may be a disappointment for readers looking for technical information on the development of wireless communication or early forensic techniques. It is still a satisfying book if you read just for enjoyment.
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LibraryThing member mscongeniality
Thunderstruck was a book I picked up when it first came out, based on the strength of The Devil in the White City. Thunderstruck is told in a similar manner, by interweaving the story of a murder case and a technological innovation that is inextricably tied to the events. In this case, it was the
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stories of Dr. Crippen (so famously caught pursued via wireless) and Guglielmo Marconi. The pairing of the two made perfect sense...until I found myself wanting to skip past the Marconi bits to get back to Dr. Crippen.

In the end, I found the book to be uneven. The two stories did not have similar appeal for me, and further, I found myself more or less trying to process events as happening 'side by side' when, often, the wireless telegraphy drama had happened years before much of the action on the Crippen side of things. I enjoyed both stories to some degree, and did enjoy the book as a whole, but am left wondering if I might not have been better served by simply buying a book about the Crippen case.
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LibraryThing member Wheatland
A well-written interweave of two histories: the development of wireless communication by Marconi, and the capture of Dr. Crippen the murderer, which was partly enabled by the new technology. The writing is clear and fluid and the histories come across as plot lines. The author has a superb grasp of
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the material and makes it come alive. He alternates chapters between Marconi and Crippen, but at times this technique excessively chops up the narrative. The reader should also note that the materials in the parallel chapters are usually not parallel in time. Highly recommended as popular history.
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LibraryThing member bookworm12
Just as he did in The Devil in the White City, Larson blends the nonfiction story of a murder with the relevant scientific or cultural events happening at the time. When Belle Elmore mysteriously moves to America and then passes away, her friends and family members are more than suspicious. Her
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husband, Hawley Herbert Crippen, becomes the focus of the inquisition, but just as soon as the police focus their attention on him he disappears. Guglielmo Marconi’s timely invention of the wireless telegraph comes into play when the captain of the SS Montrose recognizes the fugitive aboard his ship.

I’m always intrigued by Larson’s books. He finds murders and happenings that might not be well-known but that are thrilling. I would say that this one is much slower than Devil, but it’s still interesting. A murder mystery and the political world of invention are intertwined in an amazing way. I often forget that advances in technology can affect our lives in unexpected ways.

BOTTOM LINE: If you loved Devil in the White City then don’t miss this one. In my opinion it’s not quite as enthralling, but I still love the mix of education and murder mystery.
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LibraryThing member PirateJenny
The intertwined stories of Marconi and Hawley Crippen. While most people know who Marconi is, though not of the trouble he went through to get the wireless working (or that he wasn't really THE inventor of wireless, just that he was perhaps the most single-minded pursuer of getting it working),
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many may not know of Crippen. And indeed, Crippen was the draw for me with this book. Crippen was a mild-mannered doctor who married a brash, loud woman, Cora, who disappeared. A "body" was discovered in Crippen's basement Crippen was discovered aboard a ship with his lover, Ethel Le Neve, and the ship's captain relayed, by wireless, the daily goings-on of the two fugitives while an inspector from Scotland Yard chased them on another, faster ship.

I was surprised that one of the later pieces of evidence--a letter claiming to be from Belle Elmore--was not mentioned in the book, one way or the other. And though there was a lot of evidence, it wasn't perhaps quite as damning as it was made out to be. I'm not positive it was Belle in the basement. But then, I'm not positive it wasn't.
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LibraryThing member coolmama
Couldn't wait to read this after his last book on the Chicago Exposition.
Two (seemingly) unconnected stories of Dr Crippen and Marconi. Interesting details of live in Edwardian times and the race for "wireless" and the schemes that happened therein.
Was slightly dissapointed, but still a page turner.
LibraryThing member sandracollins11
Once the direction of the author became clear, it was an interesting read but took a while to get past the "needed" history of each element.
LibraryThing member bsmcnair
Like the author’s previous book, Devil in the White City, Thunderstruck involves two seemingly unrelated storylines: the bringing to justice of a murderer and a major historical event. The commitment of murder by a seemingly harmless doctor is juxtaposed against Guglielmo Marconi’s battles to
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perfect his scientific development of “wireless” communications over long distances. This hefty tome, over 460 pages, covers a twenty year time period spanning the turn of the twentieth century, culminating with the exciting trans-Atlantic chase of a dedicated Scotland Yard inspector after the suspected killers, aided by wireless transmissions. Aided by exhaustive research and comprehensive list of resources, Larson provides in-depth verbal portraits of the Italian inventor Marconi and the infamous Hawley Harvey Crippen, the North London Cellar murderer along with a wide supporting casts of scientific dignitaries and friends of the victim. The difficulties of building the extremely tall wireless towers on both coasts of the Atlantic ocean is contrasted with the obtaining and understanding of forensic evidence by Scotland Yard. Bogging down at times due to Larsen’s reluctance to cut material not critical to the plotlines, how he weaves the two seemingly unrelated events together is magic. Recommended for middle school and up due to material related to the grisly murder, Thunderstruck leaves the reader under Erik Larsen’s spell.
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LibraryThing member sharonk21
As in his last book, Erik Larson's "Thunderstruck" takes a historical true crime and uses its narrative to illustrate other important things going on during the Edwardian era.

In "Devil in the White City" it was a serial murderer in Chicago at the time of the Chicago World's Fair. Larson used the
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murders to tell all about the world fair, but more importantly, about the trends in architecture at the time.

In "Thunderstruck" he takes the tale of Crippen (who poisoned his wife and dissected her in London) and weaves it together with the almost simutaneous development of wireless communications by Marconi and others.

Both parts were equally interesting. Although I have always heard of Crippen, I had never really read his story, despite my shady habit of reading a lot of true crime. He is almost a sympathetic character.

Further, I had no earthly idea of the difficulties, duration of effort, or the contortions Marconi went through while trying develop radio. Although you root for him, he is a less sympathetic character than is Crippen.

Unlike "The Devil in the White City," the development in parallel of the two stories is more salient in "Thunderstruck." One tiny point is a little offputting; just because the duality is so apparent, it jars a bit when he switches back and forth a few years in telling the tales.

A strength of "Thunderstruck," however, is the foreshadowing (and the delivery on that foreshadowing) that somehow, finally, Larson will show that these two topics are really related in some way other than mere chronology.
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LibraryThing member jwlowery
I actually enjoyed this more than Devil in the White City. I found the connections between the murder and the development of trans-Atlantic wireless more compelling than his earlier work.
LibraryThing member mrtall
A very solid and enjoyable offering from Erik Larson. Larson has again employed his two-books-in-one trick, to better effect, I think, than in his previous book, Devil in the White City.

His two protagonists, Marconi and Crippen, are both surprisingly engaging and sympathetic, even though one's an
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aristocratic monomaniac, and the other's a murderer.

My only complaint: although it's important to know something about the opposition Marconi faced from his scientific rivals, I think too much time is spent on their complaints, which were the only parts of the book that bogged down. The rest is fine stuff.
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LibraryThing member dulcibelle
I really enjoyed this book. Larson has a conversational style, and makes history interesting. I like the way he combines a monumental event with a darker one to show all sides of an era. I also like the fact that he doesn't use footnotes (so the story flows well), but does include extensive notes
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and bibliographic data at the end of the book.
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LibraryThing member eduscapes
Like The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson alternates between the lives of two historical figures. In this case, we follow a seemingly mild-mannered medical products salesman and the inventor of wireless communication. The two stories come together when Hawley Crippen and his girlfriend flee a
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murder investigation by boarding a ship to North America. The new wireless technology is tested when the captain of the ship recognize the suspects and report them to Scotland Yard detectives. While I found the historical aspects of the Devil in the White City exciting, the historical aspects seemed to drag in this book. The endless problems and frustrations Marconi faced got a little old. However overall, Larson kept me reading through his a unique literary approach to history. I'm ready for his next book!
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LibraryThing member tangledthread
Researched and narrated in a way much like The Devil in the White City, a previous book by this author. He includes a lot of detail, not necessarily critical to the story, but entertaining in an odd obsessive-compulsive way. The story explores the intersection of the stories of Marconi as he
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attempted to sell the world on wireless communication and that of a meek, mild mannered American 'doctor' who murdered his wife while living in London.
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LibraryThing member fvg
Big letdown after "Devil in the White City".
75% of the book is about Marconi and much of that is repetitive. His history isn't so interesting that it deserves this much attention. How many times do we need to be told that Marconi was a lousy husband/fiance or that he was stubborn and worked on a
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trial by error method?
The Crippen part was good, but his behavior didn't match up well with the facts as presented.
Not recommended.
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LibraryThing member JohnMunsch
Not as good as Devil In The White City, largely because the crime he pairs with his historical tale isn't as interesting this time around. But still, the story of the early days of wireless transmission are very interesting.
LibraryThing member kathmuse
This book was very badly put together, which may or may not be put down to editing. If you would like to read this book and enjoy it, please follow these simple instructions.

1) Read either the Marconi or Crippen-specific chapters in order (normally every other chapter is about one of them. I
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recommend Marconi first, then Crippen).
2) Read the last chapter.

The two men are not interwolven as Devil in the White City was so seamlessly; one created something that ended up being a huge disadavantage to the other. Because of the vastly different time periods this book covers, it would have made better reading if it had been two parts (Marconi first, then Crippen), then came together at the end. By organizing the book the way the publishers did (I'm sure to make it more Devil-like), it's jarring and tends to detract from the story. Follow my instructions and you'll enjoy it much more, I promise.
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LibraryThing member lyzadanger
I love reading stuff by Larsen. Never a dull moment. His breathless switching between the travails of Marconi and his weird, rustic and slow invention of wireless and the hopeless sap-turned-murderer Crippen are paced with a page-turner in mind. It works. He laces history with suspense.

The only
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lacking element in this adventure is the fleshing out, as it were, of the central love story. Crippen was pitied by many, perhaps most, of those who considered him, even though he had committed a fiercely gruesome murder. All based on the intensity of his love for his other woman. But Larsen doesn't quite get this right: Crippen's relationship with Ethel is described but never felt. It's a bit too historical.

Overall, though, a romp, and recommended.
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LibraryThing member diorama86
Larson does it again with an intricately woven woven tale of two historically important figures. This novel is a great follow up to Larson's best selling novel "devil in the white city." In this story he shows the unlikely connection between Guglielmo Marconi, a young Italian inventor and Dr.
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Hawley Crippen, a meek salesman of "medical cures" married to an overbearing wife. Once again Larson masterfully shows us the connections between two people nearly lost to history, all the while teaching us a thing or two we probably didn't know before having read this book.
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LibraryThing member siri51
Another historical thriller by Larson. Two parallel stories about Marconi's invention of wireless telecommunication and Crippen, a fiendish murderer.
LibraryThing member tibobi
Did not measure up to Larson's first book "The Devil In The White City" but was interesting in its own way. I felt that the major plot points came too late and that the alternate story lines were not handled as well as they were in Devil.
LibraryThing member mattp340
Not as good as the previous book, but still interesting.
LibraryThing member lalalibrarian
It got boring in the middle and then amazing in the end. I'm still kind of shocked.
LibraryThing member missmath144
Murder and Marconi . . . although the murderer and Marconi never met, their lives affect each other in important ways. Larson once again does an excellent job of juxtaposing murder with the science of the time.

Awards

Indies Choice Book Award (Honor Book — Adult Nonfiction — 2007)

Pages

480

ISBN

1400080665 / 9781400080663
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