Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History, by Erik Larson

Eight stars

A great fan of all things Erik Larson, I turned to this piece, which is slightly different from many of the other books the author has published. Rather than using history to tell of a dastardly criminal, the piece is all about a coming hurricane and how one man, Isaac Cline, sought to forewarn others. As the meteorological event advanced and eventually hit land in a Texas community, the destruction in its wake was like nothing ever seen in the US to that point. Larson offers a gripping description of events, painting the scene as few authors are able, without ‘drowning’ the reader in excessive minutiae. Well worth the time invested in this piece of non-fiction.

Isaac Cline loved his job with the US Weather Bureau. Serving as the resident meteorologist in Galveston, Texas, Cline surveyed the area for anything weather related and made sure those around him knew all about it. It was 1900, meaning that both tracing and reporting on any weather-related phenomena was still quite primitive, though the reader will likely be quite amazed at what they could do at the time. Cline noticed that weather disturbances as far away as the Caribbean and Florida would have some effect in Texas, though many others dismissed his claims as coincidence.

On the morning of September 8, 1900, the day began like any other. Then, Isaac Cline began to notice some odd readings and took note of deep-sea swells in Galveston. It was only later that his predictions of weather patterns from other parts of the Northern Hemisphere began to take shape. A full-blown hurricane was on its way to Galveston and the town was neither prepared, nor could a plan to save themselves be put in place. As winds rose and water pelted the seaside community, Cline and others could only watch the destruction mount, as they waited to see the after effects.

While six thousand people died, most unaware of what was taking place, the story has an ominous and personal angle for Isaac Cline, who suffered a tragedy all his own. While he was calling for help, his pleas fell on deaf ears, as no one could fathom that Cline’s predictions were rooted in possible truth. This is the story of those mounting concerns and how this hurricane helped shape the future of the US Wether Bureau and meteorological predictions for decades to come.

As with all of his books, Erik Larson dazzles the reader with the detail infused into the narrative, as well as the ease with which the story progresses. Larson uses a handful of first-hand accounts—telegrams, letters and field reports, as well as the testimony provided by those who survived the Galveston hurricane—to sketch out the timeline of events, as well as the advancing storm in ‘real-time’. Isaac Cline’s struggle is surely real and effectively presented by Larson in his easy to digest writing style, leaving the reader to feel as though they, too, are battling the winds and gales that September day in 1900. Providing not only the facts, but a personal narrative throughout, the reader can latch only all that Larson has to offer and this becomes much more than a piece of historical non-fiction, trying to inform the reader as to the goings-on in a personable context that permits a degree of empathy. This was another great read by Erik Larson and I will certainly be back for more soon!

Kudos, Mr. Larsen, for more stellar history storytelling. You find the greatest and most obscure stories to share with your fans!

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.

Lethal Passage: The Story of a Gun, by Erik Larson

Nine stars

I have decided to embark on a mission to read a number of books on subjects that will be of great importance to the upcoming 2020 US Presidential Election. Many of these will focus on actors intricately involved in the process, in hopes that I can understand them better and, perhaps, educate others with the power to cast a ballot. I am, as always, open to serious recommendations from anyone who has a book I might like to include in the process.

This is Book #2 in my 2020 US Election Preparation Challenge.

While the gun debate in the United States Has long been making headlines, it takes on new dimensions when Erik Larson is at the helm. Larson uses his strengths in pulling history together and offering intense analysis to provide the reader with something about which to think before making a decision on a matter. Using a little known school shooting in December 1988 as a launching point, Larson looks at some of the factors Around how Nicolas Elliot could bring a gun to school and end up killing a teacher. However, it is so much more than this, as Larson explores the history of guns in America and how they became ‘the cool thing to have’ as well as being so readily accessible. Larson discusses how guns made their way into American Western literature and movies, as well as many television shows from as far back as the medium was an option. As Larson posits, guns have become something society is so accustomed with that it is hard to see a United States without them. Even toy commercials marking something as seemingly innocent as ‘the super soaker water gun’ as being a weapon to permit retribution for a committed wrong.

Larson also explores the politics of guns, which is itself a murky venture. From a discussion of the many pieces of legislation—both state and federal—to the emergence of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), much has been done create an apparent government presence in the discussion of gun ownership. Larson effectively argues that laws about the sale of guns are still flimsy and ATF agents are not ‘gun police’ but rather enforcement after a violation has taken place. Issues around straw purchasers (people who purchase guns for others) prove the central issue and tie in directly with the aforementioned Elliot school shooting, where the boy’s cousin purchased the gun for him, in front of a dealer who feigned ignorance. All while the National Rifle Association (NRA) stood by and used their pithy catchphrases to point the blame elsewhere, a stance that came into effect when the group politicised themselves in the latter part of the 20th century. At present, politics is surely not on the side of protecting the citizenry, but rather keeping guns in the hands of those who want them (even if they are not entitled to them, under the law). Larson offers the reader some great ideas about how one might help create a buffer to ensure rules are tightened to protect the victim, while not impeding the rightful owner of guns from exercising their inherent ‘right to bear arms’. While Larson does not discuss this, it is clear that many who beat the drum on their 2nd Amendment right are as deluded as the politicians who cite their hands are tied while funnelling NRA monies into their own coffers. An eye-opening look into the world of guns for the curious reader and surely another winner by Erik Larson. Recommend to those who enjoy learning about some of the controversial topics floating around the American political world these days, as well as the reader who enjoys Larson’s in-depth exploration of history and tragic events.

I always come away with something stellar when I finish an Erik Larson tome, feeling myself better educated on the subject and ready to engage in a thorough discussion. This was a different type of Larson book for me, seeking not to retell the intricate details of a single historical event, but rather to offer a ‘soap box’ presentation of an issue as a whole. I applaud Larson for his detailed research on the matter and found that the presentation was done in such a way as to make it highly impactful. Layering facts about gun sales and violence between portions of the Nicholas Elliot story was masterful, permitting the reader to see the parallels where they do exist, as well as using a single event to tie the discussion together. This frank discussion of events offers a sobering look at the issue while also forcing the reader to take a side, or at least pushing them to feel something related to the matter at hand. The other books penned by Larson that I have enjoyed were more focussed on a single historical event, making this one quite unique. I learned as much, if not more, as I traversed the world of guns and their role in the American psyche. While the book may be somewhat dated, its information is still relevant and offers the needed ‘call to arms’ (if you pardon the poor pun) to make a difference. While perhaps not a key presidential issue in 2020, one ought to understand where the two candidates stand on gun control and how their leadership will shape the approach to control and violence over the next four years. Think about it and choose wisely!

Kudos, Mr. Larson, for another great piece of historical analysis. I can always count on something that gets to the heart of the matter.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge:

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, by Erik Larson

Nine stars

Erik Larson offers up another of his dazzling pieces of nonfiction, taking the reader into the middle of an infamous event and hashing out some of the details that make it come alive. Larson’s attention to detail and desire to share the nuances of the events that led to the Lusitania’s sinking makes this a must-read book for all who have a passion for history of the time. The Lusitania was a well-known British passenger ship that had made the voyage across the Atlantic on numerous occasions. As Larson discusses in the early chapters, the Cunard Line held this ship in the highest esteem and advertised its prowess on the open waters. Countless people of importance had spent time in their berths and it was set to sail yet again, crossing from New York to Liverpool. After Europe went to war in the summer of 1914, questions arose as to what ought to be done about passenger ships traveling in the open waters, particularly when the German U-Boats emerged as a credible threat. Larson discusses the loose gentlemen’s agreement that any ship (passenger or freight) that identified itself as part of a neutral country should be safe from attack. Even still, the Imperial German Embassy put out advertisements about how they could not guarantee safe passage, trying to protect passengers from risking their lives. Larson points out that this warning was placed directly under an advertisement for the Lusitania’s return voyage from New York, which some felt was ominous. All the while, US President Woodrow Wilson was firmly keeping America out of the European war, in hopes that it would end quickly and he could get back to dealing with his allies on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

When the day came for the Lusitania to sail again, May 1, 1915, a large contingent had purchased tickets for the voyage. It would seem that the veiled threat brought about by the Germans could not deter the most dedicated travellers. Additionally, the haunting of the Titanic’s fate three years before did not stymie plans for many, though Larson does explain how these events did stir up some concern amongst the crew about this ship, including Captain William Thomas Turner. Larson not only lists some of the star-studded passengers, but also the lavish details of what they could expect onboard. Still, Cunard Line sought to impress their guests as much as possible with foods, accomodations, and a great deal of entertainment on board. While the Lusitania inched its way across the Atlantic, U-20, one of the deadly German submarines was trolling off the Irish Coast. Its commanding officer, Walther Schwieger was ruthless in his desire to cause as much havoc as possible. As Larson mentions, Schwieger took pleasure in sinking enemy vessels whenever and wherever possible. No ship was safe with the German U-boats out on the open waters, particularly when they could remain hidden within the fog and placid surface of the water. What was Wilson doing at this time, while war raged in Europe and the Germans were taking down ships? Why he was trying to get over the loss of his wife by wooing another woman, one Edith Bolling. Larson offers an interesting sub-plot of this most curious courting while danger slid through the waves and created an ominous veil.

By May 7th, the Lusitania had the Irish Coast in its sights, a happy event for the captain and many on board. The ship was almost done crossing and there had been nothing about which to worry. It was then that Schwieger prepared to strike. While the Lusitania had received numerous warnings across the wires about other ships being targeted, they forged onward, into U-20s sightlines. As Larson vividly describes, Schwieger took aim and shot a torpedo at the ship, striking it with enough force to cause immediate damage. From there, it was an immediate panic on board, as passengers and crew rushed to see what had happened and sought to commence evacuation. With life jackets dispensed and rafts used to ferry people to safety, the crew sized up what had happened, some choosing to downplay the damage. Reports on shore were somewhat misleading as many waited for additional information. People rushed to leave, though the damage was extensive, leaving the waters peppered with bodies, both the living and the dead. Larson offers intense details of matters at this point, putting the reader in the middle of events, as lives hung in the balance. At final count, 1198 lives were lost and the German U-20 slunk away, happy with its cataclysmic attack. Reactions on both sides of the Atlantic were slow, though news was sketchy for the first while. Wilson was furious, though this was not the event that pushed America into the war, though it surely played a contributing factor. The closing part of the book alone is riveting, as Larson describes the chaos and aftermath, enough to send chills down the spine of the bravest reader. Larson proves that he is masterful in his writing and depiction of the events of May 1915. Highly recommended to those who love vivid storytelling that brings history to life, as well as the reader who seeks to better understand how this tragedy came about.

There is no doubt that the events leading up to the sinking of the Lusitania are filled with foreshadowing. Hindsight is sure to bring the skeptics out, though one cannot fault those who were sure safe passage would be promised to a passenger ship. Larson delivers a masterful narrative that layers all sides of the story together, offering insights extracted from his deep research. There is no doubt that the reality of this event is shown a new level of intensity through Erik Larson’s words, leaving the reader to feel as though they, too, were aboard the ship. Larson’s style presents things almost as though it were a piece of fiction, the vividness exceeding expectation with each turn of the page. Divided into five key parts, Larson delineates how things progressed and at what point the Lusitania slid into the almost ‘on the fly’ plan of U-20 and Commanding Officer Walther Schwieger. While it may seem macabre to admit this, but the detail of death and destruction were perhaps the best portions of the book, bringing home the sizeable losses suffered on that day, which helped to vilify the act all the more. Perhaps one of the best-told pieces of historical storytelling I have read, right up there with the other Erik Larson book I completed recently. Stunning seems too bland a word for me to use in this case.

Kudos, Mr. Larson, for yet another winner. I cannot wait to get my hands on more of your work, as you breathe life into the past’s tales.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge:

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America, by Erik Larson

Nine stars

Always one to enjoy a little true crime, I had this book highly recommended to me by a very close friend. Erik Larson explores not only the electric sentiment surrounding the World’s Fair in Chicago, but also a sinister character hiding in the shadows, piling up a number of bodies while no one took much notice. The year is 1890 and Chicago is vying to win the right to host the World’s Fair. Set to take place in 1893, the fair has been promised to the United States, allowing a proper quadricentennial celebration of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the New World. After a gruelling vote by Congress, Chicago won the bid and preparations began. Headed by Daniel H. Burnham, the ‘World’s Columbian Exposition’ started its planning stages, seeking the best land, the greatest buildings, and the most elaborate set-up possible to impress the world. With a limited timetable, everything had to move at lightning speed, something that Burnham would soon realise turned out to be a snail’s pace. In the background, one Herman W. Mudgett, who goes by H. H. Holmes, arrived in the area and settled in Chicago. Professing a medical background, Holmes sought to invest in local businesses and lay down some roots. His innovative ideas caught the attention of many, which was paired with his magnetic personality. However, deep within him lurked a man who was infused with the devil’s own magic, or so he believed. Larson discusses early in the book about how Holmes laid the groundwork for numerous cases of insurance fraud, having people obtain life insurance policies and name him (sometimes using more pseudonyms) as the sole beneficiary. Holmes was also known to use his eyes of the deepest blue to lock onto a woman and decide how he might have her as his own. Larson offers up a wonderful narrative as to how Holmes subtlety lured a certain young woman away from her husband, all while having the man invest deeper into a business venture. Once the woman had left her husband, he courted her and promised all the riches he could offer. He let nothing stand in his way, even a pregnancy that he sought to abort, removing all hurdles to his plans. Holmes brought the woman to his suite on Christmas Eve and killed her, though never allowed a single drop of blood to flow from her, thereby hiding much of the forensic evidence. A killer was born, at least in Chicago, though through some fast talking, Holmes convinced everyone that the victim had left to visit family, while selling her body to a local medical school once it had been disarticulated.

With the fair set to open before too long, Burnham had yet to find his piece de resistance; something that would rival the Eiffel Tower in Paris from the fair not five years before. After a number of options proved too underwhelming and M. Eiffel’s attempt to create something new seemed to be a slap in the face, Burnham accepted an idea by a Mr. Ferris to create a massive wheel that would allow fair-goers to see the grounds and much of Chicago from a contained pod. With all the other preparations, Burnham left Ferris to create his masterpiece, hoping that it would be ready for the May 1,1893 opening. He set about making sure everything was running smoothly, while also being feted in the most extravagant ways (Larson includes the menus, which had my mouth watering). By the time the World’s Columbian Exposition opened, the Ferris Wheel was well behind schedule and fair-goers could only gawk at it, hoping that it might be up and running before too long. Burnham seethed in the background, as gate admissions proved to be troubling and the bankers were ready to call in their debts. Meanwhile, Holmes found a new woman to woo, choosing to present himself with a pseudonym so that no one would get suspicious. His plans grew as he had her help him prepare his hotel for the fair-goers, but would wait for things to really kick off before disappearing with more bodies attributable to his sinister work. Holmes surely had a taste for death, though his was far less gruesome than Jack the Ripper, the latest serial killer whose name had been splashed all across the tabloids only a few years before.

In the culminating section of the book, Erik Larson offers the reader a glimpse not only into the wonders that the fair brought, but the intensity of Holmes and his killing spree. While the world was introduced to Juicy Fruit chewing gum, they were oblivious to the missing women who fell at the hands of a folded cloth of chloroform. Aunt Jemima instant pancake mix might have wooed households (more so than the new cereal, Shredded Wheat), Cracker Jacks offered up a new and sweet popcorn-based snack, and new technologies for communication and inter-personal socialisation. All the while, H. H. Holmes plotted horrible ways by which he could kill and feed his ever-growing need for power. In an interesting parallel, while the end of the exposition came, Holmes was also seeking to pack up and depart Chicago. Larson discusses some of the macabre events that saw the end of the exposition look blacker than Chicago had hoped. Holmes’ departure brought him to the attention of the authorities and a massive insurance fraud opened the door to some questions about the whereabouts of some who had gone missing. Larson shows how quickly things went from calm to chaotic and what led authorities to capture a serial killer no one even knew existed. A piece that will surely stay with me for years to come, as I make sure to find more books by Erik Larson to feed my appetite for this sort of writing. Recommended to those who love a chilling piece of true crime, as well as the reader whose love of history and late 19th century America remains high.

Erik Larson offers readers a sensational piece of true crime, though it is so much more. His subtle telling of the murders committed by H. H. Holmes proves to add to the eerie nature of the entire experience, as he layers the narrative with the development and launching of the World’s Columbian Exposition. Featuring so much detail in the slow and methodical planning of the event, Larson pulls the reader into the middle of it all, as though they were there with Daniel H. Burnham through trial and tribulation. Equally as stunning is the means by which Larson told of the plotting Holmes undertook for each of his victims, making sure to fit himself into the community and win over the hearts of neighbours before causing the odd (and intricate) disappearance. Larson could not have added more detail, as it truly feels to the reader as though they are right there, down to the ‘large ice fangs that covered the trains one January night as the engines travelled along the tracks’. It is this depiction that turns this from a book of true crime to one in which the reader can almost sense what is lurking in the shadows. Some may wish to bolt their doors, others might not want to go out after dark, and still others may be left wondering about their neighbours and acquaintances, such is the depth to which Larson makes the reader feel a part of the action. The book is broken into four parts, with vignettes that serve as chapters. Larson balances the narrative between the exposition and Holmes’ activities advancing both as the timeline requires. This is surely one of those books that will keep the reader wondering what to expect, especially those who are not familiar with the murders. With so much to see and do throughout the book, the reader is sure to get lost amongst all the action and the numerous characters. Erik Larson does his best to keep it straight and provides the reader with the ride of their life… and I am not even referring to the Ferris Wheel.

Kudos, Mr. Larson, for a sensational depiction of a period of time meant to be celebratory, with a definite pall of darkness clouding over it. I will be checking out more of your work to see what else I might learn.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: