Erik Larson's 2003 book The Devil In The White City traced the parallel stories of a World's Fair architect and a serial killer, and Larson's new non-fiction thriller Thunderstruck strives for a similar sense of sublime connectivity. Larson devotes half of Thunderstruck to Hawley Crippen, an unassuming pharmaceuticals manufacturer who murdered his wife in 1910, and the other half to Guglielmo Marconi, the man credited with inventing wireless telegraphy. The link? When Crippen tried to flee from justice on a U.S.-bound cruise ship, the captain foiled him by alerting the authorities with his wireless set—one of the feats that sold the public on the long-term viability of trans-oceanic radio. Larson could just as easily have intertwined the rise of Marconi with the death of King Edward or the wreck of the Titanic—events just as inextricable—but historical synchronicity isn't the sole purpose here. Larson aims to examine the contradictory post-Victorian mind, and how it led some men to dare greatness, and some to do terrible things.
To that end, the key character in Thunderstruck isn't Crippen or Marconi, but Oliver Lodge, a physics professor who demonstrated the practical application of radio waves years before Marconi came to London and patented his invention. But Lodge was an idealist who believed in openly sharing scientific research rather than cultivating its commercial prospects, and he was obsessed with the paranormal, which meant that time he could've spent developing useful technology was spent attending séances and reporting breathlessly on their authenticity. That's the way it goes with history: People follow their instincts, and don't pay attention to how they'll look to people reading about them a century later.
Thunderstruck lacks the urgency and blood-chilling revelation that made The Devil In The White City such a page-turner, though Larson does fill the book with cliffhangers, teases, and mini-mysteries. Nevertheless, Thunderstruck succeeds at honoring the often-surprising progressiveness of early 20th-century British society—especially regarding sex—while capturing the peculiar latter-day frustration of those who learn about Marconi's costly methods of trial and error, or how Crippen sacrificed his reputation for the sake of money and love. If only we could go back in time, hand them a copy of this book, and show them where they were about to go wrong.