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Thunderstruck

Cover of Thunderstruck

Thunderstruck

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 murder.
With his unparalleled narrative skills, Erik Larson guides us through a relentlessly suspenseful chase over 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.

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 murder.
With his unparalleled narrative skills, Erik Larson guides us through a relentlessly suspenseful chase over 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.

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    Chapter 1

    Ghosts and Gunfire Distraction

    In the ardently held view of one camp, the story had its rightful beginning on the night of June 4, 1894, at 21 Albemarle Street, London, the address of the Royal Institution. Though one of Britain's most august scientific bodies, it occupied a building of modest proportion, only three floors. The false columns affixed to its facade were an afterthought, meant to impart a little grandeur. It housed a lecture hall, a laboratory, living quarters, and a bar where members could gather to discuss the latest scientific advances.
    Inside the hall, a physicist of great renown readied himself to deliver the evening's presentation. He hoped to startle his audience, certainly, but otherwise he had no inkling that this lecture would prove the most important of his life and a source of conflict for decades to come. His name was Oliver Lodge, and really the outcome was his own fault-- another manifestation of what even he acknowledged to be a fundamental flaw in how he approached his work. In the moments remaining before his talk, he made one last check of an array of electrical apparatus positioned on a demonstration table, some of it familiar, most unlike anything seen before in this hall.
    Outside on Albemarle Street the police confronted their usual traffic problem. Scores of carriages crowded the street and gave it the look of a great black seam of coal. While the air in the surrounding neighborhood of Mayfair was scented with lime and the rich cloying sweetness of hothouse flowers, here the street stank of urine and manure, despite the efforts of the young, red-shirted "street orderlies" who moved among the horses collecting ill-timed deposits. Officers of the Metropolitan Police directed drivers to be quick about exiting the street once their passengers had departed. The men wore black, the women gowns.
    Established in 1799 for the "diffusion of knowledge, and facilitating the general introduction of useful mechanical improvements," the Royal Institution had been the scene of great discoveries. Within its laboratories Humphry Davy had found sodium and potassium and devised the miner's safety lamp, and Michael Faraday discovered electromagnetic induction, the phenomenon whereby electricity running through one circuit induces a current in another. The institution's lectures, the "Friday Evening Discourses," became so popular, the traffic outside so chaotic, that London officials were forced to turn Albemarle into London's first one-way street.
    Lodge was a professor of physics at the new University College of Liverpool, where his laboratory was housed in a space that once had been the padded cell of a lunatic asylum. At first glance he seemed the embodiment of established British science. He wore a heavy beard misted with gray, and his head--"the great head," as a friend put it--was eggshell bald to a point just above his ears, where his hair swept back into a tangle of curls. He stood six feet three inches tall and weighed about 210 pounds. A young woman once reported that the experience of dancing with Lodge had been akin to dancing with the dome of St. Paul's Cathedral.
    Though considered a kind man, in his youth Lodge had exhibited a cruel vein that, as he grew older, caused him regret and astonishment. While a student at a small school, Combs Rectory, he had formed a club, the Combs Rectory Birds' Nest Destroying Society, whose members hunted nests and ransacked them, smashing eggs and killing fledglings, then firing at the parent birds with slingshots. Lodge recalled once beating a dog with a toy whip but dismissed this incident as an artifact of childhood cruelty. "Whatever faults I may have," he wrote in...
Reviews-
  • AudioFile Magazine Two story lines converge in Larson's latest nonfiction. One follows Guglielmo Marconi and the development of wireless telegraphy. The other traces the life of Hawley Crippen, a patent medicine salesman who gruesomely killed and dismembered his wife. When Crippen fled to North America, Marconi's transoceanic wireless led to his arrest. The celebrated murder case did much to promote wireless telegraphy. Bob Balaban is solid as narrator. He has a clear, easygoing style. However, Larson writes for the eye rather than the ear. This means some of his intricately constructed sentences are difficult to read aloud. Balaban is left wondering where to pause. Also, Balaban himself sometimes pauses at awkward moments. But these are minor flaws that don't interfere significantly with listening pleasure. R.C.G. (c) AudioFile 2007, Portland, Maine
  • Publisher's Weekly

    October 1, 2006
    Larson's new suspense-spiked history links Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of wireless telegraphy, with Hawley Crippen, a mild-mannered homeopathic doctor in turn-of-the-century London. While Larson tells their stories side by side, most listeners will struggle to find a reason for connecting the two men other than that both lived around the same time and that Goldwyn's plummy voice narrates their lives. Only on the final disc does the logic behind the intertwining of the stories become apparent and the tale gain speed. At this point, the chief inspector of Scotland Yard sets out after Crippen on a transatlantic chase, spurred by the suspicion that he committed a gruesome murder. Larson's account of the iconoclastic Marconi's quest to prove his new technology is less than engaging and Crippen's life before the manhunt was tame. Without a very compelling cast to entertain during Larson's slow, careful buildup, many listeners may not make it to the breathless final third of the book when it finally come alive.

  • Washington Post "Larson's gift for rendering an historical era with vibrant tactility and filling it with surprising personalities makes Thunderstruck an irresistible tale...He beautifully captures the awe that greeted early wireless transmissions on shipboard...he restores life to this fascinating, long-lost world."
  • Chicago Tribune "Of all the non-fiction writers working today, Erik Larson seems to have the most delicious fun...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"
  • People "[Larson] interweaves gripping storylines about a cryptic murderer and the race for technology in the early 20th century. An edge-of-the-seat read."
  • Miami Herald "Captivating...with Thunderstruck, Larson has selected another enthralling tale--two of them, actually--...[he] peppers the narrative with an engaging array of secondary figures and fills the margins with rich tangential period details...Larson has once again crafted a popular history narrative that is stylistically closer to a smartly plotted novel."
  • Atlanta Journal-Constitution "As he did with The Devil in the White City, Larson has created an intense, intelligent page turner that shows how the march of progress and innovation affect both the world at large and the lives of everyday people."
  • The Washington Post Book World "Larson's gift for rendering an historical era with vibrant tactility and filling it with surprising personalities makes Thunderstruck an irresistible tale."
  • Library Journal "An enthralling narrative and vivid descriptions...Larson has done a marvelous job of bringing the distinct stories together in his own unique way. Simply fantastic!"
  • The New York Times Book Review "Larson is a marvelous writer...superb at creating characters with a few short strokes."
  • Publishers Weekly "Splendid, beautifully written...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."
  • The Plain Dealer (Cleveland) "[Larson] captures the human capacity for wonder at the turn of the century...[he] has perfected a narrative form of his own invention."
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