Thursday, May 22, 2008

Thunderstruck by Erik Larson

As in Larson's earlier book, The Devil in the White City, this one also intertwines the true stories of two unlikely characters. In Thunderstruck, Guglielmo Marconi and Hawley Crippen are the two men whose lives intersect in the early years of the 20th c.

Crippen was a mild-mannered doctor, who committed the second most famous murder in London (after Jack the Ripper). When his flamboyant, demanding and extravagant wife, Belle, mysteriously disappears her friends suspect him but the police can't find any evidence to hold him and he quietly leaves London with his secretary/lover, headed to America.

The other story describes Marconi's plodding and unscientific efforts to create the equipment that used electromagnetic waves to send wireless transmissions across the Atlantic. Larson goes into a bit too much detail here describing the relentless competition among the various "inventors" who were vying to be the first to master wireless technology. The fact that Marconi even succeeded at all is actually quite amazing because he really didn't understand how or why the equipment worked. For me, this was the most fascinating part of the book...

But in the end, the two mens' stories intersect when Marconi's wireless "invention" is the tool used by the London police track down and capture Crippen (after they did some digging in the garden of his former house), as he sailed across the Atlantic on the SS Montrose, ready start a new life in America. Oops, not so fast Mr. Crippen!

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