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Book Review: Thunderstruck

Review of: Thunderstruck
Erik Larson

Reviewed by:
On September 27, 2014
Last modified:September 7, 2014


Erik Larson's Thunderstruck reads like a novel, but it isn't. It's a non-fiction history of the invention of wireless telegraphy and a famous murder.

It's a fascinating book that has it all: romance, mystery, paranoia, politics, magicians, psychics, seances, industrial espionage, murder, and some history thrown in to boot.

Erik Larson’s Thunderstruck reads like a novel, but it isn’t.  It’s a non-fiction history of the invention of wireless telegraphy and a famous murder.  How these two things are connected takes some time to unfold.

This book is similar in structure to The Devil in the White City, also by Larson.  The book unfolds as two separate stories that are related in a chronologically linear fashion, but not always in synch with one another.  The author does a great job of presaging the connection with a short introductory prologue, the significance of which doesn’t become clear until near the book’s conclusion.  I was intrigued with how something could be such a huge news event a little over 100 years ago, could be almost totally unknown today.

One of the storyline tracks pertains to Marconi.  It s part biography and part history of the development of wireless signal transmission.  The other storyline follows the sad life of Hawley Harvey Crippen.  This track leaves you sympathetic to his plight as the beleaguered, browbeaten, long-suffering husband of flaky, controlling and threatening trollop.  (I really didn’t like Belle.)  After years of suffering insults and humiliation, Crippen finally breaks and poisons his wife, thoroughly deboning and filleting her afterward.  It was kind of gruesome.  He buries her organs and skin in the coal cellar and disposes of her bones.

I won’t go into how the two stories intertwine, but it’s pretty interesting.  I especially like all of the ancillary data that comes out of reading this book.   The reader gets a sense of what was going on during the first 10 years of the 20th century.  Sidelines about King Edward, Churchill, Lord Kelvin and Edwardian England’s preoccupation with the occult, are all fascinating.   One particular tidbit of trivia, was that Tesla postulated that voice and images would eventually be transmitted over the airwaves, and, in fact coined the term television…  in 1900!

Another thing that I found interesting was the Marconi was not a scientist, but rather an intuitive experimenter.  He did not understand the physics, math, or have a scientific background at all.  This was of considerable consternation to the Royal Society and other scientists of the day.  He was fanatical about keeping his discoveries secret, which flew in the face of the scientific community’s penchant for publishing papers for open discussion of invention and theory.  He was so loathe to divulge his methods that he often demonstrated his receivers encased in a wooden box.

It’s a fascinating book that has it all:  romance, mystery, paranoia, politics, magicians, psychics, seances, industrial espionage,  murder, and some history thrown in to boot.


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