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Washington Post Book World
Friday, October 27th, 2006
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Thunderstruck

by Erik Larson

Murder, He Wired

A review by Lauren Belfer

In July 1910, a sensational news story spread around the world: An American doctor wanted in London for the gruesome murder of his wife -- she was poisoned, flayed, deboned and buried in the couple's basement -- was fleeing justice on an ocean liner headed from Antwerp to Quebec City. He was accompanied by a young woman, his lover, who was disguised as a boy. Another ship, bearing the Scotland Yard inspector in charge of the case, gave chase. Through the new technology of wireless communication, which miraculously allowed ships at sea to communicate with one another and with people on land, newspapers far and wide breathlessly reported the chase as it happened. In Thunderstruck, Erik Larson tells the story of the events leading to this moment.

In his last book, the mega-bestseller The Devil in the White City, Larson perfected the technique of focusing on a nearly forgotten incident of history, in that case the World's Fair in Chicago in 1893, and exploding it into a suspenseful chronicle of an entire era, packed with vivid portraits of a huge cast of characters. Larson repeats that design in Thunderstruck . Against a panoply of late-Victorian and Edwardian society and with entertaining verve and colorful style, he weaves together the lives of Hawley Harvey Crippen, murderer, and Guglielmo Marconi, the genius responsible for wireless technology.

The story begins in 1894. British scientific circles were riveted both by the mysteries of invisible electromagnetic waves and by attempts to prove scientifically the veracity of séances. Enter Marconi, a young man of Italian-Irish heritage, who dreamed of harnessing electromagnetic waves for long-distance communication. No matter that his contemporaries considered this idea far-fetched. Marconi's lack of a traditional scientific education, particularly his ignorance of physics, became an advantage as he worked obsessively to achieve his goal. Step by slow step, in an all-consuming process of trial and error, he was able to increase the distance over which he could send messages. This work wasn't simply theoretical: Ships at sea traveled in silence, cut off from the world around them, oblivious to danger. As the technology improved and became practicable, business bickering ensued, with Marconi forced to fight off competition, struggle to find customers and deal with accusations of patent infringement.

By contrast, Hawley Harvey Crippen was a homeopathic doctor and a purveyor of patent medicines. A small, retiring man with thick glasses, he had the misfortune to marry a voluptuous, flamboyant and domineering woman who fancied herself an opera singer and, when that failed, a music-hall performer. Crippen and his wife moved frequently before settling in London, where his wife continued to exploit him. When he fell deeply in love with a young woman who adored him, he found a solution to his marital predicament in the form of a powerful poison, hyoscine hydrobromide. Larson tells the tale of Crippen and his lover with an eloquent, almost heartbreaking poignancy.

Nonetheless, the narrative style that served Larson well in The Devil in the White City seems to bedevil him here. The constant shifts between his two plot lines become strained and confusing. Years separate Marconi's work from Crippen's machinations, giving the book a jarring, disjointed feel as it bounces back and forth in time. Each section ends with a cliffhanger; soon these feel tiresome rather than suspenseful. Larson seems to share Marconi's obsession with every twist and turn in the development of wireless technology, portraying it in mind-numbing detail. His frequent digressions -- joyful and captivating in The Devil in the White City -- here come to feel like extraneous padding. For no apparent reason except geographic proximity, Larson presents a history of the Bloomsbury group, active years after the events he is describing. The digressions also short-circuit emotional involvement with the story. In the midst of a moving portrayal of Crippen's lovesick mistress, Larson suddenly presents a technical disquisition on the hair curlers she might be using, probably "the Hinde's Patent Brevetee, about three inches long, with a Vulcanite central core and two parallel metal bands." So much for love.

Even so, Larson's gift for rendering an historical era with vibrant tactility and filling it with surprising personalities makes Thunderstruck an irresistible tale. Of London, he writes, "There was fog . . . that left the streets so dark and sinister that children of the poor hired themselves out as torchbearers . . . the light formed around the walkers a shifting wall of gauze, through which other pedestrians appeared with the suddenness of ghosts." He beautifully captures the awe that greeted early wireless transmissions on shipboard: "First-time passengers often seemed mesmerized by the blue spark fired with each touch of the key and the crack of miniature thunder that followed." Larson can be forgiven his obsessions as he restores life to this fascinating, long-lost world. ·

Lauren Belfer is the author of the novel City of Light.


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