Monday, September 21, 2009

Pulp of the Week - Thunderstruck


Thunderstruck by Erik Larson, 2006

Guglielmo Marconi

Dr. Hawley Crippen

Erik Larson seems to find himself drawn to the period of history when the nineteenth century turned to the twentieth. He writes well researched non-fiction that reads like a thriller. Previously he has written about a hurricane that leveled Galveston in 1900, killing more than 6,000 people and about the 1893 Chicago World's Fair that was terrorized by a serial killer.

In Thunderstruck he weaves together the story of Guglielmo Marconi's obsession to achieve transatlantic radio with the story of Hawley Crippen, a mousey man whose domineering wife has disappeared. Once again, Larson has spun gold.

Much of Thunderstruck takes place in turn of the century London and the city and its people are beautifully drawn, rich and poor alike. Hawley Crippen is an American living in London and working for a company that sells ailment cures. He makes a good living and is married to an aspiring actress/singer that is short on talent and long on ambition. She treats herself to material excess and scrimps on affection for Hawley. She threatens to leave him often. She is jealous if he talks to any other woman, but goes out often herself. Hawley must have been miserable at home, but puts on a good face.

Blue eyed Guglielmo Marconi grew up in Italy and was schooled at home until the age of 12 by his mother, Anne Jameson Marconi (daughter of the Jameson whisky family), and the tutors she brought in. Being Protestant, she didn't want him educated by the Catholic schools that dominated the Italian towns. The Marconis were well off and young Marconi learned English a bit better than Italian. He is obsessed with electricity.

After hearing about about a lecture where electromagnetic waves travelled across a room and rang bells, Marconi realizes that the era of the traditional telegraph is about to end and that wireless telegraphy is the future. He studies and experiments and keeps at it until he achieves great distances with his wireless. Patents are disputed and the public and scientific communities are dubious of the practicality and use of the wireless. Marconi can't understand why it seems no one else can see what he sees - a global wireless network.

Marconi is ruthless and driven to achieve his goals. He requires in the contracts for his equipment that it will only be used to communicate with other Marconi wireless sets, assuring a virtual wireless monopoly. Marconi tries for years to transmit across the Atlantic.

In the meantime, Hawley's wife has gone missing. She returned to American, he tells her friends. Later he says that she died of pneumonia. Mrs. Crippen's friends are suspicious and call for a Scotland Yard investigation.

How the two stories ultimately tie together is fascinating and inevitable.

Larson is a terrific writer and his research is outstanding. I would recommend Thunderstruck to any fans of history or mystery. It is a pulp crime thriller that I give a 9 out of 10.

For this review I read the Three Rivers Press trade paperback, 2nd printing.

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