Erik Larson’s Devil in The White City is right up there with Ken Burns’ Civil War or Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. This is nonfiction that goes beyond the limits of nonfiction. It was a brilliant book filled with uncanny facts and amazing coincidences. Each page brings new depth and new understanding. Thunderstruck follows well in the footsteps of Devil in The White City.
The world is one which we are familiar with, the turn of the 19th century into the 20th century. This is a period of time that is perfect for these kinds of non-fiction novels. The world between 1850 and 1950 saw the greatest changes in human history-in all aspects of human understanding. Great things were happening, and great things were being recorded in a way that would last the ages, or at least, be available to researchers of our own time. The writer who wants to talk about the life of Ancient Rome, for example, has far less source material with which to work.
James Burke was the first person I recall to put all this vast information to good use in his wonderful series called Connections. Here great scientific events seemed to bounce into each other at chance and bring about the new world order out of simple chaos. All of these stories start and end at the same place. They bring history to life.
Erik Larson’s Thunderstruck tells the tale of a London murder and Marconi’s wireless. The fact that I had never heard of the murder didn’t really surprise me, as I am not really up on the hot murder cases of 1910. But I was surprised that I knew next to nothing about Marconi-whose wireless was famously used on the Titanic. If you’d asked me about Marconi’s claim to fame I would have said without hesitation that he invented the radio. But the wireless didn’t start out with Amos and Andy-it started out with the dots and dashes of Morse code and the seemingly impossible task of sending messages hundreds of miles in an instant.
As with The Devil in The White City, there is a staggering amount of information in Thunderstruck. Famous names wander in and out of the narrative-Teddy Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Arthur Conan Doyle, Alfred Hitchcock-and these are just from the end of the book that is most fresh in my memory. Names and dates and events are tossed about with machine gun rapidity. Minor characters in the story are given quick bios, so that we find out a hangman, for example, cut his throat to end his own life and that a cat had a full and happy life until it was run over by a truck.
The bulk of the story is about a mild mannered man named Dr Crippen, who, apparently, murdered his overbearing and extremely unpleasant wife one night. Unlike a work of fiction, there is no real resolution to the case of the London Basement Murder. There is no death bed confession, no finial pieces of the puzzle that points to Dr Crippen as the murderer. No little wrap up scene of the wife boarding a train for parts unknown. Could so meek a man have killed his wife and went about his business unperturbed? Seems that he could.
In our own world of cold blooded killers there seems nothing all that amazing about Dr Crippen. He was perhaps a forerunner to the insane and murderous Eddie Gein. The wife’s body, such as it was, was nothing more than a collection of parts and pieces, with notable pieces missing. Dr Crippen did make a run for it, and this would make you think he did it.
For most of us it is hard to imagine a world in which we ourselves did not exist, let alone a world without television, radio, personal computers, the internet, and travel to anywhere in the world in a matter of hours not days or weeks. Yet a mere hundred years ago this was the case. Thunderstruck is a wonderfully detailed story of murder and science, but the world of 1910 described is not the simple world of Peter Pan and My Fair Lady-both of which earn passing mention in the story.
If you liked Devil in The White City, you’ll like Thunderstruck as well. It’s every bit as good.