A great ride through Edwardian London

Review History

October 29, 2006|By Beth Kephart | Beth Kephart,Chicago Tribune

Thunderstruck

Erik Larson

Crown / 463 pages / $25.95

Of all the nonfiction writers working today, Erik Larson seems to have the most delicious fun. For Isaac's Storm, his book about the deadly hurricane that struck Galveston, Texas, in 1900, he melded eyewitness reminiscences with the nascent science of weather to generate a dramatic narrative about devastating collisions. For The Devil in the White City, his best-selling National Book Award finalist, he coupled the realization of the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago with the gruesome, behind-the-scenes tale of a serial murderer.

Larson adores the past and its seeming coincidences. He finds narrative zest in the potentially peripheral. He relishes the inexplicable and the irrefutable - the messiness of human lives as set against the cold, hard facts of science. He fears neither adjectives nor asides. His tangents run the gamut.

For his newest, destined-to-delight book, Thunderstruck, Larson has turned his sights on Edwardian London, a place alive with new science and seances, anonymous crowds and some stunningly peculiar personalities. The possibility of wireless telegraphy has captured the people's imagination - a means of communicating, through the very ether, across great distances, even to ships crossing the seas. The term "poverty line" has just been coined, and more Brits fall below it than sociologists wish to admit. Only harlots, and perhaps a few suspect others, are crossing the moral line and dyeing their hair. Patent medicine is a lucrative profession. Lavishly equipped nautical vessels are leaving one port and entering another.

In alternating chapters boasting irrepressible titles - "Easing the Sore Parts," "Anarchists and Semen," "The Dynamite Prize," "Quivering Ether" and "Were You Her Lover, Sir?" among them - Larson weaves these factors into a tale of exuberant intrigue. He gives us, as his primary protagonists, two men who could not have been more different from each other: audaciously self-confident Italian entrepreneur Guglielmo Marconi, who would stop at nothing to advance his dream of first creating and then monopolizing wireless communication; and mild-mannered, physically ordinary Hawley Harvey Crippen, accused of spousal murder so colossally grotesque and strange that it later inspired the dark imaginations of Alfred Hitchcock and Raymond Chandler, among others.

It was the installation of Marconi's wireless on the British ship Montrose that facilitated the capture of the fugitive. It was the great irony that the entire world could read of the escapades of Crippen and his girlfriend (telegraphed as this news had been, through the wireless) while Crippen believed himself undetected that makes this tale so noteworthy, so haunting. Writes Larson: "Here they were, Crippen and Le Neve, aboard [the] ship, utterly unaware of the messages rocketing back and forth all around them."

If Larson is an exceedingly colorful author, he is never a manipulative one. As personally ambitious and cruel as Marconi could be, Larson makes certain to convey the man's genius for perseverance and his often-lonesome faith in the power of his equipment. As violent and vulgar as Crippen's (never confessed to, but fully punished) crime was, we are given, by Larson, a clear accounting of the man's quite personal hell. Crippen had had the great misfortune of marrying a greedy, preening, threatening, unfaithful woman, a woman whose presence, Larson makes clear, was its own kind of torture. Larson doesn't suggest that Crippen's crime was justified. He merely places it in its domestic context.

Often, of course, it's the era itself that Larson is exploring. He stops at nothing to bring its scents, colors, very electricity alive. "The world was growing more chaotic and speeding up," he writes at one point. "Rudyard Kipling could be spotted in his six-horsepower motorcar thundering around at fifteen miles an hour." Prince Edward, Larson tells us elsewhere, "loved pigeon pie and turtle soup and deer pudding and grouse, partridge, woodcock and quail, and when the season allowed he consumed mounds of grilled oysters."

Were Thunderstruck a novel, one might begin to question the profusion of details or the riot of implied exclamation marks. One might suggest, even, that a more-condensed version of the tale would have been slightly more effective. But Larson is, at the end of the day, an admirably thorough historian whose grasp of his chosen era and personalities really shouldn't be caged. So we're treated to mini-histories of the first battery and sidebar biographies of social reformers in the course of this story. So Beatrix Potter makes an appearance, and also Virginia Woolf. What the heck. This is a Larson book. Why not take the ride?

Beth Kephart, the author of five books of nonfiction, is a partner in the marketing communications firm Fusion. She wrote this review for the Chicago Tribune.

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