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Sunday, January 26, 2020

Thunderstruck by Erik Larson 2019 read

Front cover paperback
Back Cover
Another from 2019,   November/December.  Finally  posting so that I can  donate the copy to the local library book sale.  Erik Larson is one of my favorite historical fiction writers and although this was published in 2006 I had not read it.  As with everyone of his books, I learned a lot, this one about electromagnetic energy as Marconi develops the wireless system and the battle  begins between the transatlantic cable and wireless.  True to his form there is more than one character to follow as if Marconi would not have been enough, we learn about one of the nearly perfect murderers, Dr Crippen.  A very unexpected "convergence of the stories of a killer and an inventor.    

Page 33, gives us the origin of the word" bedlam" , from the Hospital of St Mary's of Bethlehem, an asylum for the insane whose name shrunk through popular usage to the word bedlam which is a word to describe chaos and confusion.   With all the hoopla today about climate change, global warming, etc  and the denigration of naysayers, I read with interest about the European heatwave of August 1894  pages 39- 43.  Page 377 near the end of the 392 pages mentions that the Dr Crippen story influenced Hitchcock who  adapted elements in Rear Window and  episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.  Also that Raymond Chandler  was fascinated by the case and inconsistencies and sympathized with Crippen.    Chandler analyzed that Crippen's mistakes were ones that panicked men tend to make but that Crippen did not seem to panic at all, but that he did many things that required a cool head.  Chandler saysa, " You can't help liking this guy somehow.  He was one murderer who died like a gentleman."  .  

From the author's own blog pages, "The saga of how the lives of the inventor of wireless and of Britain’s second most famous murderer (after Jack the Ripper) intersected during one of the greatest criminal chases of all time. The inventor was Guglielmo Marconi, the young Italian genius; the killer was Hawley Harvey Crippen, who murdered his overbearing wife and fled Britain with his mistress, unaware that Scotland Yard was hot on his heels. The book—an instant New York Times bestseller—brings to life a host of forgotten characters, including spirit mediums, ghost-hunting physicists, Scotland Yard inspectors, and one of the great pioneers of forensic science. The climax occurs during a trans-Atlantic chase which, thanks to the miracle of Marconi’s invention, was followed by millions of people around the world—with Crippen and his mistress completely unaware."  

Another review  by  James L. Swanson " ..Scientists had dreamed for centuries of capturing the power of lightning and sending electrical currents through the ether. Yes, the great cable strung across the floor of the Atlantic Ocean could send messages thousands of miles, but the holy grail was a device that could send wireless messages anywhere in the world. Late in the 19th century, Europe's most brilliant theoretical scientists raced to unlock the secret of wireless communication.
Guglielmo Marconi, impatient, brash, relentless and in his early 20s, achieved the astonishing breakthrough in September 1895. His English detractors were incredulous. He was a foreigner and, even worse, an Italian! Marconi himself admitted that he was not a great scientist or theorist. Instead, he exemplified the Edisonian model of tedious, endless trial and error.
Despite Marconi's achievements, it took a sensational murder to bring unprecedented worldwide attention to his invention. Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen, a proper, unattractive little man with bulging, bespectacled eyes, possessed an impassioned, love-starved heart. An alchemist and peddler of preposterous patent medicines, he killed his wife, a woman Larson portrays lavishly as a gold-digging, selfish, stage-struck, flirtatious, inattentive, unfaithful clotheshorse. The hapless Crippen endured it all until he found the sympathetic Other Woman and true love. The "North London Cellar Murder" so captured the popular imagination in 1910 that people wrote plays and composed sheet music about it. It wasn't just what Crippen did, but how. How did he obtain the poison crystals, skin her and dispose of all those bones so neatly?
The manhunt climaxed with a fantastic sea chase from Europe to Canada, not just by a pursuing vessel but also by invisible waves racing lightning-fast above the ocean. It seemed that all the world knew—except for the doctor and his lover, the prey of dozens of frenetic Marconi wireless transmissions.
In addition to writing stylish portraits of all of his main characters, Larson populates his narrative with an irresistible supporting cast. He remains a master of the fact-filled vignette and humorous aside that propel the story forward. Thunderstruck triumphantly resurrects the spirit of another age, when one man's public genius linked the world, while another's private turmoil made him a symbol of the end of "the great hush" and the first victim of a new era when instant communication, now inescapable, conquered the world..".

Although perhaps not my favoirte Larsaon book, I enjoyed it.   Certainly 4.5 stars..One complaint is the size of the type in this edition, Broadway Books, it is too small and meant that I had to use my reading glasses, magnifiers the entire time.  

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