Thunderstruck, by Erik Larson

Nine stars

When it comes to historical crime stories, one need look no further than Erik Larson. His ability to take non-fiction and turn it into something so very exciting is second to none, leaving readers begging for more. This story, which explores the lives of two men—Hawley Crippen and Guglielmo Marconi—takes the reader on a sensational journey through the late Victorian Era and into the early 20th century. Crippen, a popular doctor, devises a plan to commit the perfect murder and seems as though he might just get away with it. Marconi, a scientist and inventor, works to perfect communication through the air. Both men, while unaware of the other, are intertwined as it relates to this ‘’almost perfect murder’, which Larson recounts in a thrilling manner. Brilliant once again, fans of Larson’s work will not be disappointed.

Hawley Crippen was a man of some means, with a medical degree to validate many of his ideas. While the late Victorian Era was one where people turned to any possible cure for their ailments, Crippen was the peddler of new and innovative ones through the guise of homeopathy. He would make even the most confident snake oil salesman gasp with some of his antics. Outside of his work, Crippen found a wife who was just as eccentric as he, one Belle Elmore. Larson recounts their connection and how Crippen appeared to adore her for all the time they were together. However, Crippen’s eye soon turned elsewhere and he had to dispose of his wife, wanting her terminated and no longer a thorn in his side. Thus began a series of choices that Crippen felt would ensure he was in the clear, with a new lover by his side.

All the while, Guglielmo Marconi sought to revolutionise the world by delving into communication. As a scientist and inventor, he posited that he could create a system of communication whereby the message could pass from one device to another without the aid of wires. While the process was slow and cumbersome, Marconi set his eyes on being able to create a system where people could speak from far distances in the blink of an eye. Seen by some as part of the realm of the supernatural, Marconi worked hard to develop the technology, as others sought to steal it from him through patents of their own. Marconi showed that he could create such a device, adding practicality to it when he got it onto the transatlantic steamships who could now communicate with one another and posts on either side of the ocean. Marconi, likely suffering from some mental illness, saw this as his contribution to the larger scientific discovery of mass communication, in hopes of making a lasting impact into the 20th century.

The curious reader will want to know how these two men are tied together, seemingly from two different worlds. The details related to the final chase and apprehension of Hawley Crippen are not only chilling, but told in such a way that the reader will have to check that this is not a piece of fiction, with all the excitement coming from each page turn. All in all, it is a riveting story that shows how a seemingly innocuous invention could be at the centre of bringing a murderer to justice once and for all. Who would assume Hawley Crippen, who was ‘such a nice man’, of committing such a heinous crime and then lengths to which he would go to elude capture? Marconi’s relentless work on radio transmissions not only saw him rise to a certain fame, but also proved essential in the capture of Hawley Crippen right under the criminal’s own nose.

Larson does well to find the point at which both men’s lives intersected and uses this as lauding point for the crux of the tome. He works well to link the men, who were not acquainted beforehand, and weaves a story that captivates the attention of many while also turning it into a piece of criminal non-fiction. His use of historical events, both related to the men and the general goings-on of the times, helps put everything into context. The detail offered by Larson throughout the narrative breathes life into the story, without bogging things down too much. Clear explanations throughout help the lay-reader better understand what’s going on and how the information connects with the larger story, as well as the scientific discoveries of the day. Larson is to be applauded yet again for pulling the reader in with easy delivery and captivating perspectives. Chapters keep the reader wanting to know more and provide wonderful opportunity for those who need breaks to gather their thoughts after everything that has come to pass. I am eager to get my hands on another piece soon, as Erik Larson is one of those authors whose writing makes you want to learn more at the earliest opportunity.

Kudos, Mr. Larson, for another captivating tale of crime in history. Your abilities are not lost on me and I can only hope others see it as well.