Thursday, 18 February 2016

Thunderstruck - Erik Larson

Thunderstruck is one of those great ideas that doesn't quite work.  Larson had scored a hit The Devil in the White City, about the parallel careers of Daniel H Burnham, architect of the White City at the Chicago World Fair, and H H Holmes, who killed and processed so many visitors at his Murder Hotel. The key is that the two men were active in the same city at the same time.

Thunderstruck juxtaposes the stories of H H Crippen and Guglielmo Marconi. The link between them, obviously, that Crippen was tracked and caught by virtue of Marconi's sea-to-shore wireless telegraphy. The snag is that Crippen and Marconi were rarely in the same place at the same time. The time discordance is fatal; all the interesting events in Marconi's career were before 1910 - indeed, by 1910 he had become rather unpleasant - and Crippen's time in the spotlight was entirely 1910.  Larson's technique is to interleave their stories, thus by the tricky middle part of the book their apparently continuing lives are five years adrift.

The middle section is where I lost interest slightly.  Crippen's story was coming to the boil just as Marconi's had dwindle to a tedious simmer.  The beginning and the end are both great, though, and Larson writes prose perfect for his subject-matter.  He is a writer who obviously cares about and loves his work. Not all can say the same.

I should perhaps make it clear that Thunderstruck is non-fiction and that Larson's research is more than thorough, it's incredible - far more than I have met in any other account of either Marconi or Crippen, both of whom fascinate me, too.  Actually, I should modify that last statement slightly: it is the secondary characters in the stories of Marconi and Crippen that intrigue me - people like Sir Oliver Lodge who demonstrated wireless telegraphy several years before Marconi and Inspector Dew who chased Crippen across the Atlantic.  And I suspect they came to intrigue Larson too, because he gives Lodge, in particular, more coverage than he perhaps warrants.

An excellent read, I must definitely chase up The Devil in the White City.

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