Front CoverThunderstruck, Erik Larson

What is it about murders in the early-1900s that were so uninspired and rather boring?  People were apparently captivated by crimes that just didn’t have much to them.  I’ve read a lot of Sherlock Holmes, so I know crime was pretty interesting in the latter half of the 19th century, but apparently innovative and creative crime entered a bit of a lull in 1910 or so.  The “crime of the century” by Ruth Snyder highlighted in One Summer: America, 1927 was so unremarkable that it wasn’t even mentioned in the first few reviews of the book I pulled up, and that’s rather how I felt about Hawley Crippen’s crime in Thunderstruck.

Thunderstruck follows two parallel stories, similar to Devil in the White City (ah, now there was a murderer!), that of Guglielmo Marconi, inventor of the wireless, and Hawley Crippen, a man fleeing Europe with his mistress after murdering his wife, not realizing that there are police waiting for him on the other side and that he has been reported via, get this, wireless.  The reason this conceit doesn’t work as well as in Devil in the White City is that in Devil both stories, the 1893 Chicago World Fair and that of H.H. Holmes, one of the countries earliest serial killers, were part of and representative, in their own ways, of the changing world.  Holmes’ success in his murders was partly due to the changing rules of society and the growing city that the World Fair was part of as well.  Crippen, on the other hand, had nothing to do with the wireless except for being unfortunate enough to be caught using new technology.  Rather than being a parallel story, he really should have been one more note in the world of the wireless.

Plus, the story of Marconi and the wireless is much more interesting.  Marconi was an entirely self taught genius who realized that he could send telegrams without wires if he had the right equipment.  He didn’t understand at all how the technology worked, but he did know that it worked, and managed even to demonstrate it’s utility across the Atlantic.  The story of the technologies development, and of others who were working on parallel branches, is really quite interesting, as is the first demonstrated use of new technology enabling helicopter parenting-Queen Victoria taking advantage of the wireless to insist on speaking to her son, Edward, several times a day while he was on a ship in the ocean.  Marconi himself seems like a bit of a brilliant jerk, someone who I’m cheering for and rooting against at the same time.

Crippen, on the other hand, is an unfortunate man who made a poor marriage.  After being miserable for years, it appears that he took up an affair with a young woman who worked for him and murdered his wife so that he and his mistress could flee to America. They happened to be, unfortunately for them, on one of the first ships to be equipped with a wireless.  The captain recognized them and reported back to Scotland Yard.  A faster ship was dispatched and Crippen was arrested upon reaching land.  A remarkable occurrence, certainly, but it didn’t seem to be enough to hang half the book on.  And the crime itself was both straightforward enough and confusing at the same time–I don’t quite understand why Crippen, who was described elsewhere as not at all violent, mild, etc., would kill his wife instead of just fleeing and abandoning her.  At the same time, everything was solved quickly without too much drama.  I felt like there was information missing, and Larsen spent too much time on them, at the same time.

The book was still fun to read, and it mostly suffers in comparison to the superb Devil in the White City.  In this case, though, I just didn’t think the conceit held up.




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