Erik Larson




Date Reviewed:

July 26, 2007

hunderstruck follows a similar vein to Larson's previous book, the hugely successful Devil in the White City. Devil in the White City told two parallel stories: one described an engineering marvel at the turn of the century (the construction of the Ferris Wheel and the Chicago World's Fair) the other thread described a serial killer who preyed upon single women who visited the World's Fair. In Thunderstruck, Larson describes the engineering marvel of wireless communications perfected by Marconi, and the murder of a vaudeville actress by her meek husband.

The most interesting part of the tale about Marconi's development of the wireless is learning that he did not understand how or why the transmissions worked - all of Marconi's advances came as the result of ceaseless trial and error. The man possessed a relentless determination to solve problems, and was undeterred by countless experiments that failed. At first his trials show communication is possible over a distance of a few hundred yards, but quickly he extends the range to demonstrate communication across open water to islands. Technical challenges for radio communication immediately arise - why do the radio communications seem to work so much better at night time? (I believe the answer is that radio waves bouncing of the ionosphere have less interference from the sun at nighttime (obviously), but since the existence of the ionosphere was unknown during Marconi's time, Larson does not discuss the reason for this problem too much. Indeed, Larson tells us that Marconi thought the solution to better reception was to use longer radio waves, he was headed in the wrong direction.)

Nevertheless, Marconi's invention works well enough to permit communication with ships out at sea, which is a vital capability for trans-Atlantic crossings. Indeed, the survivors of the Titantic were fortunately rescued shortly after their ship sank because of wireless communications. Marconi labors ceaselessly to perfect America to Europe communication, but encounters all sorts of challenges - technical, weather, financial, and legal - once Marconi becomes famous, several other inventors lay claim to his patents. I wish there had been more detail on Marconi's problem solving, but my current career is working as an engineer on a wireless product, so perhaps my interests are not shared by the broader population.

The murderer in this book is Dr Hawley Crippen. He is a mild mannered pharmacist who has a demanding wife, Belle, who imagines that she has the talent to become a great star. We read quite a bit about Belle and Hawley, there must have been a lot timely material available for Larson to research, because at the time of the crime it received world wide noteriety. Once the murder is committed, Hawley and his secretary flee England in disguise. A huge manhunt is underway, but Hawley and Ethel have already slipped to the continent. (Apparently, Ethel is unaware of Belle's death, despite all the headlines and manhunt, Hawley keeps her sequestered. Though at the end Larson does speculate if Ethel was entirely innocent of Hawley's deed.)

The best part of the book is when Hawley and Ethel book passage on a ship that will take them to America. Due to the miracle of the wireless, the captain of the ship alerts the authorities of his suspicious passengers. Soon the entire world knows that the suspects are onboard, and their daily activities are broadcast to Scotland Yard, and then to the entire media. It is like an early version the OJ Simpson chase on the freeway - a suspected murderer is on the run from the police and the entire world tunes into watch. (I watched the OJ chase, but not because I wanted to - they interrupted the NBA finals of the Rockets vs the Knicks and I kept waiting for them to get back to the game and cut away from the stupid car chase.) The chief inspector in the Belle Crippen murder case hops on a faster boat to America and races ahead to make the arrest of Crippen while boatloads of photographers and newsmen are on hand to witness the collar.

Overall, this is a pretty good book, but I liked Devil in the White City better. Both are pretty good reads.