Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Thunderstruck by Erik Larson

ThunderstruckTitle: Thunderstruck
Author: Erik Larson
Pages: 392 (463 with notes, indexes etc.)
Published: 2006 Three Rivers Press
Read For: Book Club #1
My Rating: 3.5 stars

from the back cover:
In Thunderstruck, Erik Larson tells the stories of two men--Hawley Crippen, a very unlikely murderer, and Gulielmo Marconi, the obsessive creator of a seemingly supernatural means of communication--whose lives intersect during one of the greatest criminal chases of all time.
First of all, before beginning this book, what exactly are we reading?  It looks like a novel, but the synopsis sounds like history.  Is it a nonfiction scientific historical account of wireless telegraphy and a grisly murder?  Or, as the LA Times says, "A ripping yarn of murder and invention"?  On one hand, it is both.  On the other, I think judging it as nonfiction (which it is) is an important distinction in comparing quality and interest to anything else you may be reading.

This is probably the most engaging, well written piece of nonfiction I've ever had the pleasure of reading. (And I've heard his previous book, The Devil in the White City, is even better.)  I can't say that I'm very interested in either science or murder, but I can say that the book was an interesting read.  One thing that would have made the book much better would have been a little less coverage of Marconi's many failed experiments, since the history and psychology behind the murder was far more fascinating.  The intersecting point in these two stories is the fact that Marconi's wireless successes enabled the capture of Hawley Crippen, as well as the ability for world-wide coverage of the event.

Erik Larson has quite the talent for comparing facts:
Crippen joined an estimated 15,000 of his countrymen already living in London, which number by coincidence equaled the total of known lunatics residing within the city's five asylums.
 While there were a vast number of characters and facts introduced--making it somewhat difficult at times to keep track of everyone and everything--some of those tidbits ended up being my favorites.  If you pick this book up, be aware that it is totally okay to skim some of the Marconi details until the story picks up the pace in the second half of the book.  If you've read Erik Larson before, can you tell me what you thought?


  1. I have heard of Erik Larson before and I have to say your review really strikes a nerve. He's going to find a place in the horizontal pile of my bookshelf soon.

    Great review.

  2. It's so hard to find well-written, engaging non-fiction. This one sounds like a good read!

  3. I agree with Sam - engaging, well-written nonfiction is hard to find. Larson's The Devil in the White City was an outstanding audiobook and I'm sure it would have been just as enjoyable in print. I hadn't heard about Thunderstruck, but I'll take a look at it - thanks!

  4. Sounds interesting. Thanks for a fabulous review (and for giving permission to skim through bits *grin*)

  5. Ben--I love thinking of the horizontal pile of your bookshelf...what an imagination inducing phrase!

    Sam--it really is, isn't it? And especially for this one being largely about science, I was impressed. :)

    JoAnn--I wasn't that interested in the synopsis of either book, but I'm sucker for good writing. I'm going to have to take another look at The Devil in the White City.

    Okie--don't you feel so much better with my permission granted? ;) There's a pretty low level of skimming to be done here, compared to most NF, but sometimes it's nice to know if every scene is vital.

  6. Great review - thorough yet concise. Thunderstruck sounds like quite an interesting piece of non-fiction. I'll have to add it to my already growing list of books to read...

  7. the Ink Slinger--(great name, btw) I was impressed enough with the writing that I'll be adding his other book, Devil in the White City, to my list as well. I love a book that makes learning fun. :)


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