Thunderstruck (Erik Larson)

In this age of cell phones and constant communication, it’s easy to think our generation is the first that can’t get away from everything. We’ve become connected 24/7. I’ve made calls from mountain ridges and remote bike trails. I still enjoy shutting off the phone from time to time, but it’s a temporary isolation. Real isolation isn’t as common as it used to be.

Erik Larson book signingWe aren’t the first generation to go through this change. We aren’t even the first to speak in terms of “wireless” technology. A century ago people faced the same cultural and mental shock. It took one well-publicized manhunt to drive the new age into focus. I just finished a book that seized on that event: Thunderstruck [LibraryThing / WorldCat] by Erik Larson.

Beginning at the end of the nineteenth century when someone only needed to step on board a ship to be out of range, Larson tells two distinct stories. One was the struggle of Guglielmo Marconi, the young inventor with a dream of sending telegraphs without wires. He was fiercely ambitious but totally lacking in social graces; a volatile mix.

Running parallel with Marconi’s development of wireless communication (i.e. radio), was the sad tale of a marriage on the rocks. Dr Hawley Crippen and his wife Belle Elmore grew weary of their charade of mutual happiness among London society. When one of them abruptly disappeared, the other, feeling the eye of suspicion draw closer, gathered a companion and made a run for the isolation of the sea.

Out of range? No longer. Thanks to Marconi’s newfangled wireless, the pure isolation of a ship in the wide Atlantic was gone. Suddenly. The world had changed.

The book was interesting on many levels. Marconi’s part of the story carried the book early on, but the gruesome horror of the crime eventually surpassed it, and the intermingling of the two storylines made the eventual chase exciting.

By the way:  Larson also wrote the 2003 bestseller The Devil in the White City [LibraryThing / WorldCat], and Isaac’s Storm [LibraryThing / WorldCat], my first read of 2000, before that. Like Thunderstruck, both earlier books had riveting narratives set against a turn-of-the-last-century backdrop.

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