Summary and book reviews of Thunderstruck by Erik Larson

Thunderstruck

by Erik Larson

Thunderstruck
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2006, 480 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2007, 480 pages

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Book Summary

The interwoven stories of two men whose lives intersect during one of the greatest criminal chases of all time - Hawley Crippen, a very unlikely murderer, and Guglielmo Marconi, the obsessive creator of a seemingly supernatural means of communication.

A true story of love, murder, and the end of the world’s “great hush”

In Thunderstruck, Erik Larson tells the interwoven stories of two men—Hawley Crippen, a very unlikely murderer, and Guglielmo Marconi, the obsessive creator of a seemingly supernatural means of communication—whose lives intersect during one of the greatest criminal chases of all time.

Set in Edwardian London and on the stormy coasts of Cornwall, Cape Cod, and Nova Scotia, Thunderstruck evokes the dynamism of those years when great shipping companies competed to build the biggest, fastest ocean liners, scientific advances dazzled the public with visions of a world transformed, and the rich outdid one another with ostentatious displays of wealth. Against this background, Marconi races against incredible odds and relentless skepticism to perfect his invention: the wireless, a prime catalyst for the emergence of the world we know today. Meanwhile, Crippen, “the kindest of men,” nearly commits the perfect crime.

With his superb narrative skills, Erik Larson guides these parallel narratives toward a relentlessly suspenseful meeting on the waters of the North Atlantic. Along the way, he tells of a sad and tragic love affair that was described on the front pages of newspapers around the world, a chief inspector who found himself strangely sympathetic to the killer and his lover, and a driven and compelling inventor who transformed the way we communicate. Thunderstruck presents a vibrant portrait of an era of séances, science, and fog, inhabited by inventors, magicians, and Scotland Yard detectives, all presided over by the amiable and fun-loving Edward VII as the world slid inevitably toward the first great war of the twentieth century. Gripping from the first page, and rich with fascinating detail about the time, the people, and the new inventions that connect and divide us, Thunderstruck is splendid narrative history from a master of the form.

Chapter 1
Ghosts and Gunfire Distraction

In the ardently held view of one camp, the story had its rightful beginning on the night of June 4, 1894, at 21 Albemarle Street, London, the address of the Royal Institution. Though one of Britain’s most august scientific bodies, it occupied a building of modest proportion, only three floors. The false columns affixed to its facade were an afterthought, meant to impart a little grandeur. It housed a lecture hall, a laboratory, living quarters, and a bar where members could gather to discuss the latest scientific advances.

Inside the hall, a physicist of great renown readied himself to deliver the evening’s presentation. He hoped to startle his audience, certainly, but otherwise he had no inkling that this lecture would prove the most important of his life and a source of conflict for decades to come. His name was Oliver Lodge, and really the outcome was his own fault— another manifestation of what even he acknowledged to be...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
Erik Larson, bestselling author of The Devil in the White City and Isaac’s Storm, returns with another gripping examination of a watershed period in history. In Thunderstruck, he intertwines the fascinating, sometimes shocking stories of two Edwardian-era men: Guglielmo Marconi, the appallingly driven inventor of the wireless telegraph, and Hawley Harvey Crippen, a mild-mannered doctor who killed his wife in the notorious “North London Cellar Murder.” One’s creation helped to capture the other, while the capture itself catapulted the creation from the merely intriguing to the downright necessary, opening the door for the instantaneous communication we take for granted today.

Told with Larson’s renowned fusing of ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

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, 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.   (Reviewed by BookBrowse Review Team).

Full Review Members Only (458 words).

Media Reviews

The Washington Post - Lauren Belfer

Larson's gift for rendering an historical era with vibrant tactility and filling it with surprising personalities makes Thunderstruck an irresistible tale

The New York Times - Kevin Baker

Erik Larson has done it again. In Thunderstruck, just as in his last book, The Devil in the White City, he has taken an unlikely historical subject and spun it into gold. The formula is simple enough, though the finished books verge on alchemy. The only question is whether we’re getting true magic or mere sleight of hand.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Thunderstruck triumphantly resurrects the spirit of another age.

High School Library Journal –Pat Bangs

In an era when wireless has a whole new connotation, young adults interested in the history of scientific discovery will be enthralled with this fascinating account of Marconi and his colleagues' attempts to harness a new technology. And those who enjoy a good mystery will find the unraveling of Dr. Crippen's crime, complete with turn-of-the-century forensics, appealing to the CSI crowd. A thrilling read.

Library Journal

Larson has done a marvelous job of bringing the distinct stories together in his own unique way. Simply fantastic! Highly recommended.

Reader Reviews

Dorothy T.

History made fascinating
Eric Larson has a great gift for taking historical facts--well documented--and, by focusing on individual persons, presents his readers with an engrossing tale. I recommend his books to anyone with even a little bit of interest in history.

VW

Large Efforts of Small Men
Once a young student with little or no appreciation of history, I now read books like Larson's with curiosity and genuine interest. This author weaves together the stories that made headlines at the last turn of the century. One person's actions put ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Winner of the 1909 Nobel Prize, Guglielmo Marconi was born in Italy in 1874, the son of an Italian country gentleman and Englishwoman, Annie Jameson. He was intrigued by electrical science from an early age and at just 21 years of age he succeeded in sending wireless signals over a distance of one and a half miles. A year later, in 1896, he was granted the world's first patent for a system of wireless telegraphy, and shortly after formed The Wireless Telegraph & Signal Company Ltd. In 1890 he took out his famous patent No. 7777 for "tuned or syntonic telegraphy". The following year he proved that wireless signals were not effected by the curvature of the earth by transmitting a wireless signal across the Atlantic ...

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