Erik Lawson's third book (following Issac's Storm, 1999
and The Devil in the White City, 2003) confirms him as a master of the
art of turning potentially dull history into riveting narrative.
In Issac's Storm he wrote about Isaac Cline, the respected meteorologist who, in 1891, refuted the public's request for a seawall to protect the city of Galveston by stating that the idea of a hurricane doing serious harm was "an absurd delusion". Nine years later Galveston Island was hit by a hurricane that is still considered the biggest natural disaster in US history, killing thousands including some of Cline's family.
Larson hit his stride in The Devil in the White City, by intertwining two true stories that happened in the same timeframe - one tells of serial killer H.H. Holmes, neatly pulling in true-crime aficionados; while the other tells of the architectural triumph and social extravaganza that was the 1893 World's Fair - which lasted 6 months and attracted 27 million visitors. Murder and architecture proved to be a winning formula, one that kept The Devil in The White City on the paperback bestseller lists for well over two years!
In Thunderstruck, Larson again juxtaposes two very loosely connected stories. The first is that of glamorous workaholic Guglielmo Marconi and his invention of the wireless. The second, arguably spicier, story is of poor old Doctor Crippen, who after years of being brow-beaten by an overbearing wife at last plucks up the courage to do away with her and run away with a younger woman. He almost gets away with the perfect crime, only to be apprehended by the ship's captain due to the miracle of Marconi's wireless technology (we're not giving away anything here, this is spelled out in the opening pages).
The dual-story that worked so well in The Devil in The White City does not work quite as well here. The connection between the two halves of Thunderstruck feel a little strained; while H.H. Holmes committed his murders against the backdrop of the World's Fair, there are years between Marconi inventing the wireless and Crippin's undoing at the hands of this cunning new invention - years that require Larson to jump back and forwards in time which makes for a slightly awkward read. In addition, occasionally Larson's digressions in Thunderstruck are just a little too tangential.
Having said that, although not up to the high standard of The Devil in the White City, Thunderstruck is still a contender for "best in class" when it comes to setting the standard for popular narrative history. If you've enjoyed books such as Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman, and of course, The Devil in The White City, you're unlikely to find yourself disappointed by Thunderstruck.
This review is from the October 4, 2007 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.
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