Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Thunderstruck, But Not Quite Electrified

Thunderstruck by Erik Larson is not one of those grip-you-by-the-collar books that causes your kids to scream and kick your shins because you haven't fixed breakfast, lunch, or dinner and midnight looms, but it is a good read. Uncharacteristically, I spent four leisurely nights with Mr. Larson, enjoying the carefully crafted plot of this nonfiction tale.

As he did in The Devil in the White City, he tells two stories and moves them toward an intersection that creates a single unified whole. In Thunderstruck, Marconi is the inventor who can't seem to get his concept of wireless transmission off the ground (no pun intended, but I'll let the sentence stand.). Dr. Crippin is the kindly, well-liked physician who has murdered his domineering, abusive wife and run away with his typist.

Marconi's struggle to market wireless and Crippin's attempt to escape the law culminate in a surreal ocean voyage in which the Captain of Crippin's vessel is using his wireless to transmit information about the fugitives back to Scotland Yard and, via the newspapers of the day, to the world. As the Law races to catch the ship and board, the Captain is sending out daily tidbits that include conversations with the fugitives, their manner of dress, their reading material for the day, and other intimate details of the voyage. Worldwide, the public snapped up every morsel transmitted, and Wireless became the fad of the day. Marconi was saved even as Crippin was damned.

Larson is at the top of his craft in using information gathered from letters, transcripts, newpapers and other sources to create dialogue of such immediacy that the reader believes he has slipped into fiction. But his true master stroke comes in withholding details of the murder until after he has created a sympathetic picture of Crippin and his sweetheart. Therein lies the doubt. Crippin insisted he was innocent even as he went to the gallows. The readership of the day was uncertain, and Larson places us, today's readers, in their place.

Great read for cold nights by the fire.

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