Synopses & Reviews
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 crime.
With his superb narrative skills, Erik Larson guides these parallel narratives toward a relentlessly suspenseful meeting on 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.
Thunderstruck presents a vibrant portrait of an era of séances, science, and fog, inhabited by inventors, magicians, and Scotland Yard detectives, all presided over by the amiable and fun-loving Edward VII as the world slid inevitably toward the first great war of the twentieth century. Gripping from the first page, and rich with fascinating detail about the time, the people, and the new inventions that connect and divide us, Thunderstruck is splendid narrative history from a master of the form.
"[Signature] Reviewed by James L. Swanson
In this splendid, beautifully written followup to his blockbuster thriller, Devil in the White City
, Erik Larson again unites the dual stories of two disparate men, one a genius and the other a killer. The genius is Guglielmo Marconi, inventor of wireless communication. The murderer is the notorious Englishman Dr. H.H. Crippen. Scientists had dreamed for centuries of capturing the power of lightning and sending electrical currents through the ether. Yes, the great cable strung across the floor of the Atlantic Ocean could send messages thousands of miles, but the holy grail was a device that could send wireless messages anywhere in the world. Late in the 19th century, Europe's most brilliant theoretical scientists raced to unlock the secret of wireless communication. Guglielmo Marconi, impatient, brash, relentless and in his early 20s, achieved the astonishing breakthrough in September 1895. His English detractors were incredulous. He was a foreigner and, even worse, an Italian! Marconi himself admitted that he was not a great scientist or theorist. Instead, he exemplified the Edisonian model of tedious, endless trial and error. Despite Marconi's achievements, it took a sensational murder to bring unprecedented worldwide attention to his invention. Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen, a proper, unattractive little man with bulging, bespectacled eyes, possessed an impassioned, love-starved heart. An alchemist and peddler of preposterous patent medicines, he killed his wife, a woman Larson portrays lavishly as a gold-digging, selfish, stage-struck, flirtatious, inattentive, unfaithful clotheshorse. The hapless Crippen endured it all until he found the sympathetic Other Woman and true love. The 'North London Cellar Murder' so captured the popular imagination in 1910 that people wrote plays and composed sheet music about it. It wasn't just what Crippen did, but how. How did he obtain the poison crystals, skin her and dispose of all those bones so neatly? The manhunt climaxed with a fantastic sea chase from Europe to Canada, not just by a pursuing vessel but also by invisible waves racing lightning-fast above the ocean. It seemed that all the world knew except for the doctor and his lover, the prey of dozens of frenetic Marconi wireless transmissions. In addition to writing stylish portraits of all of his main characters, Larson populates his narrative with an irresistible supporting cast. He remains a master of the fact-filled vignette and humorous aside that propel the story forward. 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. 14-city tour. (Oct.) James L. Swanson's most recent book, Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer, was published by Morrow in February.
" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)
(Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"[F]itfully thrilling....At times slow-going, but the riveting period detail and dramatic flair eventually render this tale an animated history lesson." Kirkus Reviews
"Larson has produced another masterpiece of popular history....Larson has done a marvelous job of bringing the distinct stories together in his own unique way. Simply fantastic! Highly recommended." Library Journal
"Larson juxtaposes his oddly slapdash crime drama with a trivia-packed account of...Guglielmo Marconi's travails....The development of the wireless has its fascinations, but against a gory sexual psychodrama it doesn't stand a chance. (Grade: B-)" Entertainment Weekly
"[L]ucid explanatory prose....Readers will be forgiven...if the story of the murder and the fugitive couple proves more absorbing than the story of the development of wireless technology." Minneapolis Star Tribune
"[A] rare nonfiction tale that stays riveting from the opening prologue to the final chapter." Seattle Times
"[Larson] has taken an unlikely historical subject and spun it into gold....The only question is whether we're getting true magic or mere sleight of hand." New York Times
A vivid portrait of the Edwardian era recounts two parallel stories--the case of Dr. Hawley Crippen, who murdered his wife and fled the country with his mistress to build a new life in America, and Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of wireless communication--as the new technology is used to capture a killer. 300,000 first printing.
The bestselling author of The Devil in the White City tells the amazing, interwoven stories of two men Hawley Crippen, a doctor and an unlikely murderer, and Gugliemo Marconi, the obsessive genius who invented the wireless whose stories converge during the greatest criminal chase of all time.
About the Author
Erik Larson is the bestselling author of the National Book Award finalist and Edgar Award-winning The Devil in the White City. He lives in Seattle with his wife, three daughters, and a dog named Molly.
Reading Group Guide
Erik Larson, bestselling author of The Devil in the White City
and Isaac’s Storm,
returns with another gripping examination of a watershed period in history. In Thunderstruck,
he intertwines the fascinating, sometimes shocking stories of two Edwardian-era men: Guglielmo Marconi, the appallingly driven inventor of the wireless telegraph, and Hawley Harvey Crippen, a mild-mannered doctor who killed his wife in the notorious “North London Cellar Murder.” One’s creation helped to capture the other, while the capture itself catapulted the creation from the merely intriguing to the downright necessary, opening the door for the instantaneous communication we take for granted today.
Told with Larson’s renowned fusing of meticulous detail and propulsive storytelling, Thunderstruck is his best, most absorbing book yet.
1. In his note to the reader, Larson quotes P. D. James: “Murder, the unique crime, is a paradigm of its age.” How is the murder in Thunderstruck a paradigm of its time? Can you think of a notorious murder in our own era that is an equivalent?
2. The murderer Hawley Harvey Crippen and the inventor Guglielmo Marconi came from similarly prosperous backgrounds, and yet their lives took quite opposite turns. Compare the two men as characters–in what ways are they similar, and in what ways are they different? Who would you most like to have met, and why?
3. Now compare the two men to their respective spouses–is Marconi at all like Beatrice? What about Crippen and Belle?
4. Larson mentions Marconi’s “social blindness” throughout the book, considering it a defining trait. How did it affect Marconi’s success or failure? What was Crippen’s defining trait?
5. In specific terms, Crippen and Marconi were not linked–they never interacted with each other–and yet in Larson’s hands their stories fit together naturally. Why do you think that is? In what ways do the two men’s lives play off each other? How do you imagine they would have gotten along, had they actually met?
6. Marconi and Crippen were both foreigners in England, and yet they received very different treatment from the moment of their respective arrivals. Why? How is this reminiscent of the ways foreigners are treated in this country today?
7. Around the turn of the twentieth century, the supernatural, medical sleight-of-hand, and science were often treated in similar fashion–consider Lodge’s “scientific” studies of the paranormal, Crippen’s involvement in patent medicine, and the public’s mistrust of Marconi’s wireless technology. What parallels, if any, do you see to the way we treat emerging technologies now?
8. Isolation was a very real thing in those days, without the benefits of modern communication methods. How did Marconi’s invention change the world? Ultimately, do you think it was a change for the better, or are there benefits to the old ways?
9. Throughout the book, there are countless instances of betrayal: Marconi betrays Preece and vice versa, Belle betrays Crippen, Fleming betrays Lodge. Discuss the idea of betrayal and the specifics of it in Thunderstruck. In your opinion, whose betrayal is the most damaging?
10. Secrecy was vital to both Marconi and Crippen, but for very different reasons. Discuss the nature of their secrets, the motivations for them, and the ultimate effects.
11. Much of Marconi’s success was apparently based on gut instinct and simple trial and error, rather than any understanding of the science that lay beneath his discoveries. How would his methods be received now?
12. On page 69, Larson says that Marconi “was an entrepreneur of a kind that only would become familiar to the world a century or so later, with the advent of the so-called ‘start-up’ company.” What did he mean by this? Do Marconi’s practices remind you of any specific business leaders today?
13. Each man had two major romantic relationships in the book. Which, if any, was the healthiest? Which woman did you like best, and why?
14. Crippen is willing to subsidize Belle’s lifestyle and even her relationship with another man, only to murder her years later. Why do you think he behaves this way? Why didn’t he just cut her off financially? What finally drove him to murder?
15. Throughout the book, Larson foreshadows events that will come to pass in later pages. What purpose does this serve? How did you respond?
16. Crippen’s method for disposing of Belle’s body was quite gruesome. Larson quotes Raymond Chandler on page 377: “I cannot see why a man who would go to the enormous labor of deboning and de-sexing and de-heading an entire corpse would not take the rather slight extra labor of disposing of the flesh in the same way, rather than bury it at all.” Why do you think Crippen did it in that particular way? What does this say about him?
17. Do you believe that Ethel had no idea what had happened to Belle? Why, or why not?
18. The realities of an international manhunt were very different in the early twentieth century than they are today–as Larson says on page 341, “Wireless had made the sea less safe for criminals on the run.” Why has it changed so, and in what ways? Is it possible to hide in our world?
19. Discuss the media circus surrounding Dew’s chase of Crippen. Was this the beginning of a new era in journalism? What parallels do you see to many celebrities’ current war with the paparazzi? Compare the pursuit of Crippen to the O. J. Simpson chase.
20. If it weren’t for Marconi’s invention, do you think Crippen would have been caught? How might it have played out otherwise?
21. On page 379, Larson says, “The Crippen saga did more to accelerate the acceptance of wireless as a practical tool than anything the Marconi company previously had attempted.” Why do you think that is? What might have happened to wireless technology if not for Crippen?
22. At the very end of the book, Larson writes that Ethel was asked if she would still marry Crippen even after learning all that he had done. What do you think her answer was?
23. Why do you think Larson gave this book the title Thunderstruck? How does the term apply to Marconi and Crippen?