Friday, April 26, 2019

Thunderstruck: a very short review

Erik Larson is deservedly famed for his The Devil in the White City, which I enjoyed quite a lot when I read it years ago.

But Larson has written a number of books in addition to The Devil in the White City, and recently I happened to read Thunderstruck.

Thunderstruck is set at the turn of the 19th century, from about 1895 through about 1910, and focuses primarily on the unusual and turbulent life of Guglielmo Marconi, the Irish-Italian inventor who, at a very young age, moved to London and invented a set of devices which could send and receive messages using radio waves, something which quickly became known as the "Wireless Telegraph".

As a narrative device, Larson spins Marconi's story together with another story, that of H.H. Crippen, a physician of sorts and a peddler of the sorts of homeopathic "cures" that were popular at that time.

Alternating back and forth between the two stories, Larson brings things to a climax with a certainly entertaining depiction of a heinous crime and its unraveling by Scotland Yard.

But, overall, I found myself rather unaffected, for a variety of reasons.

Most importantly, the two stories didn't really have anything to do with each other, except for the rather boring observation that Scotland Yard were able to make use of the Wireless Telegraph during their apprehension of the murderer.

Furthermore, neither of the main characters are all that gripping. Marconi certainly had a vivid time in the world spotlight, rushing here and there to demonstrate his invention, build a company to deliver it, and grow it into a worldwide success. But Marconi (at least in Larson's telling) was a quiet, private, almost reclusive man, with not much more than a string of failed relationships to add background and color to the story of his tireless work on refining and improving the wireless transmitters and receivers.

Crippen, meanwhile, is even less appealing, and Larson is forced to tell Crippen's story primarily through the stories of those he came in contact with: wives, girlfriends, business associates, etc.

The most interesting character in the book, I thought, was the completely fascinating John Nevil Maskelyne: magician, entertainer, skeptic, and general gadabout; the best part of the entire book, in my opinion, is the wonderful story of how Maskelyne attempts to disrupt one of Marconi's public exhibitions of wireless technology by commandeering a wireless transmitter of his own and beaming risque limericks into the on-stage receiver. And, we must not forget, Maskelyne is one of those rare creatures whose own book is still read and enjoyed now, 125 years after it was first published!

As he always does, Larson does a fine job of painting the picture of the time, and the book is pleasant enough to read.

But I guess I think he tried to force his material to carry more than its fair share of a story, and the result felt to me like one of those situations where the enormous build-up with which Thunderstruck arrived led to an unavoidable disappointment when its reality sunk in.

No comments:

Post a Comment