Thunderstruck by Erik Larson

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.


Erik Larson is one of my favorite historical writers. I love how he often combines two seemingly unrelated stories into one. In this case, he chronicles the development of wireless technology by Guglielmo Marconi and combines it with the story of Hawley Crippen, a medical man who commits murder. Although historical nonfiction, Thunderstruck reads more like a narrative and lacks the stereotypical “textbook” feel of other historical nonfiction. It is not simply a recounting or list of facts, but rather a story told using facts. Having said that, it is clear that the book is thoroughly researched, and I suppose Larson does take some artistic license, but for the most part the story appears to stay true to verifiable facts. This is the third book by Larson that I have read, and I will definitely be picking up more in the future.

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