Erik Larson is a distinctive voice in the nonfiction genre, seamlessly weaving narrative with history and creating a factual recounting of events that reads with the grip and flow of a novel. Larson’s impeccable, in-depth research not only draws the lines for history, but it fills the lines in with brilliant colour. Thunderstruck is no different as Larson takes the reader to the early twentieth century, to London, America, Canada, and aboard the SS Montrose.
Thunderstruck melds together the tales of two seemingly unrelated historical figures: Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of the wireless telegraph, and Dr. Hawley Crippen, a mild-mannered homeopath. Marconi was an entrepreneur and self-taught inventor ahead of his time, maniacally obsessed with his work and selfishly self-absorbed. Crippen was an unassuming, shy, sympathetic man married to a flamboyant and unfaithful woman. When his wife disappears, he flees London with his young mistress, sparking one of the most highly publicized murder investigations of the century.
The technical aspects of the wireless telegraph bogs down the narrative, and this tale is not as balanced between fact and intrigue as Larson’s previous works. The tale was filled with numerous tangents and digressions and a subplot that could have been handled with a few paragraphs. That being said, Larson builds the narrative—sometimes ploddingly, but always steadily—and sets the stage, drawing the reader ever closer to the “meeting” of these two historical figures in a race across the Atlantic. The “meeting” is a case of how new technology was used in resolving a murder case, and how a murder case proved this new technology’s worth. The last one hundred pages detailing the murder and subsequent chase—with Marconi’s technology providing the enthralled public a bird’s eye view—were riveting and read with the pace of a thriller.
Erik Larson has skillfully paired the story of the invention of wireless technology with a gruesome and suspenseful murder mystery. At its heart, Thunderstruck is a study in human nature, and while the tale has its weaknesses, it is still a compelling read from one of the most talented voices in the genre.
Recommended for fans of historical nonfiction, particularly nonfiction focused on scientific invention and/or murder cases