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.From the Hardcover edition.
In this splendid, beautifully written followup to his blockbuster thriller, Devil in the White City, Erik Larson again unites the dual stories of two disparate men, one a genius and the other a killer. The genius is Guglielmo Marconi, inventor of wireless communication. The murderer is the notorious Englishman Dr. H.H. Crippen. Scientists had dreamed for centuries of capturing the power of lightning and sending electrical currents through the ether. Yes, the great cable strung across the floor of the Atlantic Ocean could send messages thousands of miles, but the holy grail was a device that could send wireless messages anywhere in the world. Late in the 19th century, Europe's most brilliant theoretical scientists raced to unlock the secret of wireless communication. Guglielmo Marconi, impatient, brash, relentless and in his early 20s, achieved the astonishing breakthrough in September 1895. His English detractors were incredulous. He was a foreigner and, even worse, an Italian! Marconi himself admitted that he was not a great scientist or theorist. Instead, he exemplified the Edisonian model of tedious, endless trial and error. Despite Marconi's achievements, it took a sensational murder to bring unprecedented worldwide attention to his invention. Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen, a proper, unattractive little man with bulging, bespectacled eyes, possessed an impassioned, love-starved heart. An alchemist and peddler of preposterous patent medicines, he killed his wife, a woman Larson portrays lavishly as a gold-digging, selfish, stage-struck, flirtatious, inattentive, unfaithful clotheshorse. The hapless Crippen endured it all until he found the sympathetic Other Woman and true love. The "North London Cellar Murder" so captured the popular imagination in 1910 that people wrote plays and composed sheet music about it. It wasn't just what Crippen did, but how. How did he obtain the poison crystals, skin her and dispose of all those bones so neatly The manhunt climaxed with a fantastic sea chase from Europe to Canada, not just by a pursuing vessel but also by invisible waves racing lightning-fast above the ocean. It seemed that all the world knew-except for the doctor and his lover, the prey of dozens of frenetic Marconi wireless transmissions. In addition to writing stylish portraits of all of his main characters, Larson populates his narrative with an irresistible supporting cast. He remains a master of the fact-filled vignette and humorous aside that propel the story forward. Thunderstruck triumphantly resurrects the spirit of another age, when one man's public genius linked the world, while another's private turmoil made him a symbol of the end of "the great hush" and the first victim of a new era when instant communication, now inescapable, conquered the world. 14-city tour. (Oct.) James L. Swanson's most recent book, Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer, was published by Morrow in February. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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October 24, 2006
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Excerpt from Thunderstruck by Erik Larson
ON WEDNESDAY, JULY 20, 1910, as a light fog drifted along the River Scheldt, Capt. Henry George Kendall prepared his ship, the SS Montrose, for what should have been the most routine of voyages, from Antwerp direct to Quebec City, Canada. At eight-thirty in the morning the passengers began streaming aboard. He called them "souls." The ship's manifest showed 266 in all.
Captain Kendall had a strong jaw and a wide mouth that bent easily into a smile, a trait that made him popular among all passengers but especially women. He told good stories and laughed easily. He did not drink. By standards prevailing at the time, he was young to have command of his own ship, only thirty-five years old, but he was by no means untested. Already he had lived a life as eventful as any imagined by Joseph Conrad, whose novels always were popular among passengers once the Montrose entered the vast indigo plain of the Atlantic, though thrillers and detective tales and the latest books warning of a German invasion were in demand as well.
As an apprentice seaman, Kendall had served aboard a brutal vessel with a charming name, Iolanthe, where he witnessed the murder of a shipmate by an unstable crew member, who then began stalking Kendall to silence him. Kendall fled the ship and tried his hand at mining gold in Australia, a pursuit that left him penniless and hungry. He stowed away on another ship, but the captain caught him and marooned him on Thursday Island, in the Torres Strait off Queensland. After a brief stint harvesting pearls, Kendall joined a small Norwegian barkentine?a three-masted sailing ship?carrying seagull excrement bound for farms in Europe, but storms tore away portions of its masts and turned the voyage into an epic of starvation and stench that lasted 195 days. His love of ships and the sea endured, however. He joined the crew of the Lake Champlain, a small steam-powered cargo ship owned by the Beaver Line of Canada but subsequently acquired by the Canadian Pacific Railway. He was its second officer in May 1901, when it became the first merchant vessel to be equipped with wireless. He caught the attention of his superiors and soon found himself first officer on the railway's flagship liner, the Empress of Ireland. In 1907 he gained command of the Montrose.
It was not the most glamorous of ships, especially when compared to the Empress, which was new and nearly three times as large and infinitely more luxurious. The Montrose was launched in 1897 and in succeeding years ferried troops to the Boer War and cattle to England. It had one funnel, painted Canadian Pacific's trademark colors?buff with a black top?and flew the line's red-and-white-checkered "house" flag. It carried only two classes, second and third, the latter known more commonly as "steerage," a term that originally denoted the belowdecks portion of a ship devoted to steering. A Canadian Pacific timetable from the era described the second-class quarters. "The Cabin accommodation on the MONTROSE is situated amidship, where least motion is felt. The staterooms are large, light and airy. There is a comfortable ladies' room and a smoking room, also a spacious promenade deck. An excellent table is provided. Surgeons and stewardesses are carried on all steamers." The line's motto was, "A little better than the best."