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Thunderstruck Paperback – September 25, 2007
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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.
From the Publisher
|The Splendid and the Vile||The Devil in the White City||In the Garden of Beasts||Dead Wake||Isaacs’s Storm||Lethal Passage|
|An intimate chronicle of Winston Churchill and London during the Blitz—an inspiring portrait of courage and leadership in a time of unprecedented crisis.||The true tale of the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago and the cunning serial killer who used the magic and majesty of the fair to lure his victims to their death.||A dazzling account and cautionary tale set during the years before WWII.||A true story weaving two men’s lives together with love, murder, invention, and the end of the world’s “great hush.”||The true story of the deadliest hurricane in history.||This devastating book illuminates America's gun culture – and tells the story of how a disturbed teenager was able to buy a weapon advertised as "the gun that made the eighties roar."|
NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
“Larson is a marvelous writer...superb at creating characters with a few short strokes.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Larson's gift for rendering an historical era with vibrant tactility and filling it with surprising personalities makes Thunderstruck an irresistible tale...He beautifully captures the awe that greeted early wireless transmissions on shipboard...he restores life to this fascinating, long-lost world.” —Washington Post
“A ripping yarn of murder and invention.” —Los Angeles Times
“Of all the non-fiction writers working today, Erik Larson seems to have the most delicious fun...for his newest, destined-to-delight book, Thunderstruck, Larson has turned his sights on Edwardian London, a place alive with new science and seances, anonymous crowds and some stunningly peculiar personalities.”
“[Larson] interweaves gripping storylines about a cryptic murderer and the race for technology in the early 20th century. An edge-of-the-seat read.” —People
“Captivating...with Thunderstruck, Larson has selected another enthralling tale—two of them, actually...[he] peppers the narrative with an engaging array of secondary figures and fills the margins with rich tangential period details...Larson has once again crafted a popular history narrative that is stylistically closer to a smartly plotted novel.” —Miami Herald
“As he did with The Devil in the White City, Larson has created an intense, intelligent page turner that shows how the march of progress and innovation affect both the world at large and the lives of everyday people.” —Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“Captivating...with Thunderstruck, Larson again demonstrates that he's one of the best nonfiction writers around and proves that real-life murders can be as compelling to read about as fictional ones.” —Dallas/Forth Worth Star-Telegram
“[Larson] captures the human capacity for wonder at the turn of the century...[he] has perfected a narrative form of his own invention.” —Cleveland Plain Dealer
“An enthralling narrative and vivid descriptions...Larson has done a marvelous job of bringing the distinct stories together in his own unique way. Simply fantastic!”
“Splendid, beautifully written...Thunderstruck triumphantly resurrects the spirit of another age, when one man's public genius linked the world, while another's private turmoil made him a symbol of the end of "the great hush" and the first victim of a new era when instant communication, now inescapable, conquered the world.”
About the Author
- Publisher : Crown (September 25, 2007)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 480 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1400080673
- ISBN-13 : 978-1400080670
- Item Weight : 12.6 ounces
- Dimensions : 5.14 x 1 x 7.95 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #18,309 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
About the author
Reviewed in the United States on April 14, 2019
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Because I had read other books by Erik Larson, I selected this one after tiring of reading the umpteenth book on politics leading up to the November 2020 elections in the US. As it turns out, I had switched almost entirely to reading books on my Kindle app and was pleased when I discovered Amazon.com would alert me if I had already purchased and downloaded a title. When I purchased this book copyrighted in 2006, it was not flagged as previously purchased but as I started to read it the story line was very familiar and lo and behold, I had purchased and still had a hardcover copy of the book. As I continued to read my Kindle version, I was reminded of how well Larson writes and how much interesting and entertaining technical detail he provides in his stories. This book is well worth purchasing and reading … even twice.
One of Marconi’s competitors was one with a strong academic background but one who also suffered and benefited from two traits: one his willingness to consider and investigate new phenomenon (including the paranormal) and the other the curiosity to be easily distracted to follow a new lead. Marconi in contrast was a classic experimentalist continually trying new adjustments to his equipment in the hopes of improving their performance without really any scientific understanding of why changes were leading to improvements. In the process, he comes close to bankrupting his company before later going on to win the Nobel prize.
The author states: “Historians often place humankind’s initial awareness of the distinct character of electrical phenomena in ancient Greece, with a gentleman named Thales, who discovered that by rubbing amber he could attract to it small bits of things, like beard hair and lint. The Greek word for amber was elektron.
Initially scientists were pleased just to be able to launch a spark, as when Isaac Newton did it in 1643, but the technology quickly improved …” Larson goes on to remind the reader that: “But it was James Clerk Maxwell who really shook things up. In 1873 in his A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism he proposed that such oscillations produced invisible electromagnetic waves, whose properties he described in a series of famous equations. He also argued that these waves were much like light and traveled through the same medium, the mysterious invisible realm known to physicists of the day as ether.” And goes on to remind the reader that: “In 1886 Heinrich Hertz proved the existence of such waves through laboratory experiments and found also that they traveled at the speed of light.”
Larson goes on to state that after doing a presentation on a short distance communications demonstration that: “Lodge’s own statements about his lecture reveal that he did not think of Hertzian waves as being useful; certainly the idea of harnessing them for communication never occurred to him. He believed them incapable of traveling far—he declared half a mile as the likely limit. It remained the case that as of the summer of 1894 no means existed for communicating without wires over distances beyond the reach of sight. This made for lonely times … in the many places where wires did not reach, but nowhere was this absence felt more acutely than on the open sea, a fact of life that is hard to appreciate for later generations accustomed to the immediate world-grasp afforded by shortwave radio and cellular telephone.”
Larson identified the key to Marconi’s ultimate success stating: “The true scholar-physicists, like Lodge, had concluded that waves must travel in the same manner as light, meaning that even if signals could be propelled for hundreds of miles, they would continue in a straight line at the speed of light and abandon the curving surface of the earth. … Marconi saw no limits. He fell back on trial and error, at a level of intensity that verged on obsession. It set a pattern for how he would pursue his quest over the next decade.” Moreover, Larson, explaining Marconi goes on to state: “As he worked, a fear grew within him, almost a terror, that one day he would awaken to discover that someone else had achieved his goal first. He understood that as research into electromagnetic waves advanced, some other scientist or inventor or engineer might suddenly envision what he had envisioned. … And in fact he was right to be concerned. … Scientists around the world were conducting experiments with electromagnetic waves, though they still focused on their optical qualities. Lodge had come closest, but inexplicably had not continued his research.”
Larson goes on to state: “One day, by chance or intuition, Marconi elevated one of the wires of his transmitter on a tall pole, thus creating an antenna longer than anything he previously had constructed. No theory existed that even hinted such a move might be useful.
It was simply something he had not yet done and that was therefore worth trying. As it happens, he had stumbled on a means of dramatically increasing the wavelength of the signals he was sending, thus boosting their ability to travel long distances and sweep around obstacles. … “That was when I first saw a great new way open before me,” Marconi said later. “Not a triumph. Triumph was far distant. But I understood in that moment that I was on a good road. My invention had taken life. I had made an important discovery.””
And then, we are treated to a (at the time) notorious murder case and the fascinating people it involved. At the end of the book Marconi's invention and the capture of the murderer intersect.
Marconi's troubles and the murder case are woven around each other throughout the book. A bit jarring sometimes, but still intensely interesting.
I have read three of Erik Larson's books. For me the stand out of the three is the Splendid and the Vile. I wish I could have given it ten stars. Still, the pages flew by in this book and I know much more about Marconi and a most interesting murder case than I could not have dreamed of.
Dr. Hawley Crippen was an American homeopath who basically sold patent medicines in the US, and later in London. Infatuated with a blowsy young woman named Cora who wished to become a musical performer, he married her. From all accounts he was a gentle, indulgent husband who bought his wife a huge wardrobe, supported her career even though she wasn't that talented, and didn't seem to mind her having a supposedly non-sexual relationship with a fellow male performer, Bruce Miller. Cora later changed her stage name to Belle Ellmore, and it was under that name she disappeared. Crippen initially told everyone that she'd gone home to America to nurse an ailing relative, had gotten sick herself, and died, to cover up the fact, he confessed, that she had run away to the US with Miller. By this time Crippen was being unfaithful with his secretary, Ethel Neave. The police had no reason to doubt his story, until Crippen and Neave left town and someone started poking at the bricks in the cellar.
As in DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY, Larson tells Crippen's story parallel with Guglielmo Marconi's efforts to transmit wireless telegraph signals. Marconi, a driven, spoiled man with an Italian father and Irish mother, had read about Hertz's discovery of electromagnetic waves, and, not really understanding them, pressed on with inventions that transmitted them, and was convinced that these waves could carry telegraph signals "through the ether." At the time transatlantic cables could carry messages from land to land stations, but ships at sea had to rely on passing ships to tell them news or flares to signal distress. Marconi's massive wireless stations, with their blue sparks and thunderclap sounds, would revolutionize communication with ships. But he faced stiff competition with British scientist Oliver Lodge and scientist and magician Nevil Maskelyne, among others, who also had been working on Hertz's "waves," but in a less aggressive fashion, and who considered Marconi a foreign interloper with an unproven system.
As always with Larson, well written, but if you're in this for the true crime stuff (Crippen's was the second most famous British murder case, after Jack the Ripper), the Marconi stuff will bore you, and if you're in it for the science, the Crippen portrayal of a disintegrating marriage will probably make your eyes glaze over. There's also a great deal of Marconi's legal disputes with Lodge, Maskelyne, and even people he's recruited to help him, like Forrest. But there's also a great deal to like in the Marconi parts, especially the portraits of early wireless telegraphy stations—the blue sparks and the crackling of the early transmitters sound at once both frightening and fascinating—and the weather they battled against. Enjoyed, but you must have patience with it.
Top reviews from other countries
Larson's other books have stuck to a winning formula, and he does not deviate from this simple framework for Thunderstruck. In the Devil and the White City the story of the Chicago World Fair, and the awesome demonstration of science and technology that went with it, was narrated alongside the gruesome story of mass murderer [ ]. In the Drowning of Galveston the nascent science of meteorology was tested and found flawed with devastating consequences, and again Larson wove a story of technological progress around human suffering.
In Thunderstruck the technological progress takes the starring role. The main thrust of this book is the story of radio waves, wireless telegraphy and the intriguing personalities that developed them. This is the story of Marconi, Fleming, Lodge and Tesler in an age where the transmission of messages through the ether to once isolated ships seemed as miraculous as the psychic and metaphysical demonstrations of mediums that fascinated late Victorian England.
But once again Larson ties the story of progress with something darker. In this case it is the case of Dr Crippen, his domineering and eventually dismembered wife Belle and Ethel Le Neve, his mysterious mistress. Most people will be familiar with the story of Crippen, the body in the basement and his eventual capture by use of wireless telegraphy. This is the connections that binds the two stories.
What makes Larson such an enjoyable and consummate writer of historical prose is his gift with the language, his ability to pace the stories to gripping, electric finishes and the diligent research which ensures he is able to inject life and interest into the past.
Anyone who has read any of his previous work and enjoyed them will be well served by this latest offering. Any one unfamiliar with Larson, but who enjoys deliciously well written history, would be advised to give them a go.
Would give 4.5, but obviously the Amazon rating system won't allow this!
There, the 'White City' as a human construct, built to highlight the brightest of men's achievements, serves as an unknowing and unwilling lure to the deadly and dark ensnarement of 'The Devil' - Almost a case of "The brighter the light, the darker the shade"; In this book the tales of Marconi and Crippen are also related in parallel, but in a slightly hazy chronological order sometimes, and the two stories really only touch, make contact, at the end.
It doesn't make it any less satisfying which is why I've given it a 5*, and it's fascinating to read about people's incredulous amazement that any kind of messages could be sent through the ether (given how wireless technology in all its forms is absolutely embedded in our civilisation, just a hundred or so years later).
On a total side-note, years ago I'd read a book about the sinking of the Empress of Ireland, captained by Henry Kendall - It was interesting to get a glimpse into his eventful past and the part he played in the capture of Dr Crippen.