Book Review: Thunderstruck by Erik Larson (3/5)

4 Apr

I have a lot of love for Erik Larson. I’ve read a number of his books and enjoyed them. I like how he makes history feel like a story and how he intertwines science and invention into his stories. So naturally, I’m running through his backlist.

Cover image via Goodreads

Thunderstruck by Erik Larson

Other books by Larson reviewed on this blog:

Dead Wake (4/5)
In the Garden of Beasts (4/5)

Summary from Goodreads:

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.

I liked the story and the way Larson wove the stories of Crippen and Marconi together, but I did feel like there was a large lull in the middle. Wireless was a fickle obsession for Marconi and it took him years to get it right. Reading about those years of trial and error was a bit redundant. Especially the many men who tried to undermine him and their varying degrees of success. I would have preferred a bit more about Crippen but I’m guessing there isn’t much more to be known. He seems to have lived a very quiet life.

Crippen doesn’t seem quite capable of what he’s accused of. While that’s part of what makes the story so unbelievable and captivating, it also makes it a bit confusing. It seems very little was asked of Crippen after he died and that he didn’t leave any clues behind. I’m a bit amazed that more wasn’t asked of him before his execution. You’d think with such a major chase going on, people would want to know how he committed the crime.

Crippen was my favorite character. I liked his up-and-down career and how he managed to have such an odd wife. Belle wanted everything for nothing and must have been very hard to live with. He seemed to be coping well right until the end. The fact that he snapped fascinates me and is part of why I want to know more about him and his motivation than history allows.

Marconi’s frustration with his invention was relatable in an abstract sense. There are things that I work on which frustrate me yet I continue to work on them. Training, writing, former school subjects, the list goes on. But Marconi was relentless and even seemed to make a living with his wireless system before he had figured out the operation of it completely. He was relentless in his trials and goal of figuring out wireless and that was admirable.

Erik Larson
Image via Twitter

The chase at the end was wonderfully written and exciting to read. I felt like someone reading about it in the newspaper while it was happening and my heart was jumping when it came to the ends. I wanted them caught so badly! I can see why the murder was so sensational at the time and why it drew so much attention. It also seems it was a good time for wireless to have made such a mark on the world and a great way for the technology to make it into popular use.

As I said, the book dragged for a bit when Marconi was the focus in the middle and it seemed he would never figure out wireless. There was a lot of trial and error, and it felt like the errors dominated. There were a lot of failures and competing companies and parties and none of it interested me much. I knew this would somehow tie to Crippen’s story and I felt it was a bit too much to remember all the names and places of failures and challenges.

The audiobook I listened to was narrated by Bob Balaban. I’ll be honest and say that the narration didn’t have a lasting effect on me. With a non-fiction book like this that doesn’t have speaking characters, per se, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Bob let the story be told without interfering or making it about his performance instead of the book. I’d say he was wonderfully absent.

I don’t think Larson was trying to get a theme across much in this book. I’d say he was more trying to tell a story. It’s a story of how technology can catch up with us and change the game. Wireless telegraphy was a means for ships to talk to each other and for North America and Europe to be able to converse. However, it also stepped in and changed what could have been a flawless crime by Crippen. It can be used in ways we don’t expect to do things we’d never anticipate.

Writer’s Takeaway: It wasn’t until I’d finished this book that I realized there was next to no dialogue. It flowed well, like I was being told a story, and not like a history textbook that it could have easily morphed into. Larson does a wonderful job of this in his books and it’s one of the things I most admire about him. He uses a multitude of sources to tell his stories and they come off flawlessly and effortless. Though I bet there’s a lot of effort. An awful lot.

This book was fun and entertaining but it dragged a bit for me in the second half before rushing to a conclusion. Three out of Five Stars.

Until next time, write on.

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Related Posts:
Erik Larson’s “Thunderstruck” | The Silk Moustache
Review Thunderstruck by Erik Larson | Care’s Books and Pie
Edwardian England: Erik Larson’s Thunderstruck | Author Susan Berry


One Response to “Book Review: Thunderstruck by Erik Larson (3/5)”


  1. WWW Wednesday, 10-April-2019 | Taking on a World of Words - April 10, 2019

    […] posted two reviews this week. The first was for Thunderstruck by Erik Larson. Not a favorite read, but a solid one. I enjoy Larson’s style but this topic […]


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