Review: Thunderstruck

Thunderstruck, Erik Larsen. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2006.

Summary: The intersection of the lives of Guglielmo Marconi and Hawley Harvey Crippen occurs on a trans-Atlantic voyage with a Scotland Yard detective in pursuit.

Many of us still know who Guglielmo Marconi is. He was the most well-known pioneer of wireless telegraphy. But Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen? In the early twentieth century, he was known as the mild-mannered doctor whose missing wife was found buried in a most grisly state. Erik Larson tells the story of the unlikely intersection of their two lives, culminating in a trans-Atlantic flight of Hawley and his mistress, with a Chief Inspector of Scotland Yard on a pursuing ship.

Larson does this through parallel accounts of the two men’s lives. With Marconi, it begins with the childhood tinkerer who kept experimenting with electronic transmission and who not only envisioned wireless transmissions from ship to shore but even across the Atlantic. Larson portrays a driven man who sacrifices marriage and collaborative relationships in his obsessions, unwilling to listen to others even when his designs for transmission arrays were evidently structurally unsound. With no theoretical training, he kept making mistakes until he found ways to make it work, eventually getting his equipment on many ocean-going vessels, even as competitors both in England and Germany encroached on this lucrative market.

Crippen began life in Coldwater Michigan. He trained in homeopathic medicine. After his first wife died of stroke, he married an aspiring but untalented stage actress Cora Turner, also know on the stage as Belle Elmore. He developed a career of selling patent medicines. In 1897 they moved to England where Belle briefly pursued a career on the stage. What she lacked in talent, she made up in friends. She was domineering and he was unfailingly accommodating. Then he met a woman, Ethel, at Drouet’s Institution for the Deaf. After a party during the winter of 1910 where Belle insulted him, she disappeared, and shortly after, Ethel moved in. He gave out the story that she had left him for America, then that she was ill, and finally that she’d died in California. And he might have gotten away with it were it not for her stage friends.

One went to Scotland Yard. Chief Inspector Dew was assigned. He liked Crippen but was troubled by the discrepancies in his story. As Crippen realizes he is under suspicion, he and Ethel flee to the continent, and then board a ship to Quebec. Meanwhile, Dew, investigating the house comes across a grisly burial in the basement. Marconi’s invention gets the word out to all points, including all the ships on the ocean. The captain of the Magenta suspects that the father and son traveling as the Robinsons are in reality the fugitives, finding confirming evidence. Dew gets the word via the wireless and pursues on a faster ship. But has he gone after the right suspects and will he catch them before they reach Quebec and disappear?

The first half of the account fills in the backgrounds. It’s not even clear, apart from the prologue, how the lives of Marconi and Crippen will intersect. The pace picks up in the second half as we discover the possible crime that connects Marconi’s invention to Crippen’s flight. Meanwhile, Larson fleshes out two very interesting characters. We, along with Dew, find ourselves wondering whether Crippen really was capable of what Dew found in his basement. And what part did the apparently innocent Ethel play?

This was my first encounter with Larson’s work. I have two of his other books, The Devil in the White City and The Splendid and the Vile on my TBR pile. What I discovered is a combination of historian, biographer, and true crime writer who could spin a great and true tale. I anticipate more happy hours with this author!

2 thoughts on “Review: Thunderstruck

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: June 2021 | Bob on Books

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