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31 may 2007

Erik Larson's bestseller Devil in the White City (2003) pairs a modern marvel (the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893) with a notorious murderer (Dr. H. H. Holmes). The pairing is arbitrary and the murder story overly portentous, but the book is a good read all the same. I wasn't expecting much more than a good read from Thunderstruck, Larson's recent murder-and-marvel offering, but here Larson has found a more resonant brace of stories. Spoilers wait below, so if you know nothing of the story and want to be thunderstruck by Thunderstruck, stop reading here.

Dr. H. H. Crippen (initials to avoid in choosing a doctor) appears to have almost nothing in common with Guglielmo Marconi, the Irish-Italian inventor of practical wireless telegraphy. Larson sets off at brisk pace telling the life stories of the two men in parallel. They seem about as unlikely to coincide as Alexander Graham Bell and Jack the Ripper, but that's no deterrence to a good yarn. There have doubtless been novels where Bell meets the Ripper. There have probably been a few where Bell turns out to be the Ripper.

If you know Crippen's story, one of its most famous aspects is that the bad doctor and his lover Ethel Le Neve were apprehended thanks to a wireless bulletin that reached Scotland Yard from the ocean liner they were absconding upon. Crippen's Jacobean criminal career, marked by adultery, poison, and disembowelling, reached an Edwardian comeuppance, hoist upon the petard of the newest technology. Crippen's escape across the Atlantic, pursued by Inspector Dew of Scotland Yard, was the great-grandfather of O.J.'s flight in the Bronco: slow, riveting, and watched by millions over wireless media.

The gimmicky aspect of Thunderstruck is that aside from some light foreshadowing at the very start, Larson does not connect Crippen and Marconi till the final few chapters, when the inventor's technology dooms the killer. One virtue of Thunderstruck is that you can know that aspect of the story from the start and still have fun with Larson's snappy, lurid storytelling. One can forgive a little faux-melodramatic embellishment when the real melodrama comes so readily self-embellished.

Along the way, Larson develops some very interesting resonances. His writing has a tendency to tumble together all kinds of semi-relevant facts. Some are digressive, but others take on a life and meaning of their own. A strong subsidiary theme in Thunderstruck is the Edwardian fascination – shared by some principal researchers in the field of wireless communication – with spiritualism. This at first seems of merely comic interest, but one quickly sees the holistic approach of someone like Oliver Lodge, the English wireless innovator. If living people could use invisible electromagnetic energy to communicate, it was not absurd to think of disembodied electromagnetic spiritual phenomena using them too. Significantly, one of Marconi's most strenuous critics was the magician Nevil Maskelyne, a sort of proto-Randi devoted to showing up pseudo-scientific charlatans.

A lot of people did tell Marconi wireless was a phony. Marconi was fond of staging large-scale parlor tricks to demonstrate his invention, and Maskelyne delighted in puncturing the young inventor's hyperbole. Wireless was clearly a real phenomenon, unlike table-rapping. But Maskelyne pounced on Marconi's tendency to oversell the technology. Maskelyne ended up parlaying his work as a debunker into becoming a serious wireless entrepreneur.

Larson writes well about the business aspects of wireless, which resemble, at a distance, the booms and busts of Internet entrepreneurship a century later. Marconi and his backers floated enormous schemes on the barest wisps of potential. No sooner had Marconi sent a few dots and dashes across the Bristol Channel than he began trying to send them across the Atlantic. (Typically, Marconi's wildest dreams turned out to be everyday life just a few years later.) The early years of wireless were constrained by one major obstacle. National post offices, especially in the UK, monopolized inland telegraph service. The first commercial application of wireless telegraphy was therefore in ship-to-shore or ship-to-ship messaging, a field that the post offices had never thought to stake out for themselves. Marconi's leadership in communications at sea provided the technology that trapped Dr. Crippen.

Crippen's story has been told better elsewhere, notably in Tom Cullen's Mild Murderer (1977). Perhaps Marconi's has been as well-told, too. Larson is not terribly interested in the details of police procedure or in the science of radio. He is interested in human drama, which comes mainly from the miserably unhappy marriages both men made. Of course, Marconi settled for neglecting and then divorcing Beatrice O'Brien, while Crippen opted to poison, dismember, and incinerate bits of Belle Elmore, while burying the rest of her in a shallow grave in their cellar. À chacun son goût.

Larson, Erik. Thunderstruck. New York: Crown, 2006.