Book Review: Thunderstruck by Erik Larson

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Erik Larson

Rating: 4 out of 5.

If you think you don’t like nonfiction, you should try out a book like Thunderstruck by Erik Larson. In this 2006 narrative, Larson tells the story of wireless inventor Guglielmo Marconi, murder fugitive Hawley Harvey Crippen and the race in 1910 to apprehend Crippen on a transatlantic escape attempt. Thanks to what was then called the “Marconigram,” reports of sightings around the world were communicated via wireless transmissions to detectives in London, including one from Captain Henry George Kendall of the SS Montrose. Kendall was certain that two people on his ship were Crippen and Ethel Clara LeNeve, Crippen’s secretary and lover, disguised as a father and his teenage son.  

Larson sets the background in a description of Marconi’s obsessive efforts to figure out how to communicate through what people then called the “ether.” Marconi was not a scientist and had no formal schooling, but his curiosity, hunches and persistence put him ahead of others in the scientific world. He had plenty of competitors and just as many skeptics, whose jealousy made them bitter and prompted some to do whatever they could to thwart his progress. Marconi’s obsessive drive despite setbacks and his strange personality (isn’t that what makes inventors who they are?) put him on top, however, and in 1909, he received the Nobel Prize in Physics for his accomplishments.

I knew the basics about Marconi, but I hadn’t heard of Crippen and the North London Cellar Murder investigation of 1910. It’s a well-known case, however, and has been portrayed on stage, in books and on screen. Crippen was an American homeopath and an ear and eye specialist who sold over-the-counter remedies. After his first wife died, he married Cora Turner, an aspiring opera singer. When the couple moved to London, Cora adopted her stage name, Belle Elmoore and Crippen began hawking remedies. While Belle was a voluptuous and sexy flirt and very social, Crippen was of slight build and wore thick glasses that accentuated his protruding eyes. He was exceedingly mild-mannered and yielded to her every wish. And although their friends wondered about the unlikely couple, most thought they were happy. They weren’t. Belle went through money like water and ordered her husband around. Crippen began an affair with his secretary, Ethel LeNeve.

One day, Crippen announced that Belle had left him for a lover in New York, then later said she’d taken sick and died. When Belle’s friends began to question him and took their concerns to Scotland Yard, Crippen disappeared with LeNeve. The hunt was on.

I enjoyed Larson’s account of Marconi’s inventions and of Crippen, Belle and Ethel. Larson is a talented and entertaining writer and the result of his extensive research is a story that both flows easily and ties the two narratives together in an interesting way. Modern investigations would have been much more thorough and accurate, but forensics of the time were surprisingly inventive. The case attracted worldwide attention and many wondered how such a likable guy could have committed such a gruesome crime all by himself. Also interesting was LeNeve’s role, if any, in the plot. You’ll need to read the book to find out the rest, but there’s plenty to think about!

Thanks for visiting – come back soon!

21 thoughts on “Book Review: Thunderstruck by Erik Larson

    1. Hi Noelle – I want to read that for sure and also the one about the sinking of the Lusitania – I need to take a break and read some fiction first though! Thanks for the visit 🙂

  1. Hi Barb! I’m going to get this one- I think I actually have some time to read more frequently now. Hope you had. A nice Easter! Thank you! Jody

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    1. Nonfiction is so much better than it used to be – especially narrative nonfiction. I also really like biographies and some memoirs. Thanks for stopping by, Lynette!

  2. I remember learning about Marconi, probably in junior high. Thanks for the notice here and the review. Narrative non-fiction appeals to me. Thanks, Barbara!

    1. Hi Marian – I only knew the basics about Marconi and nothing about the Crippen murder case. So definitely interesting. Thank you for stopping by!

  3. Thanks for this great recommendation. I luv historical/memoir type nonfictions. This is now on my list and just checked out the audiobook from the library. Thanks again!

    1. I definitely enjoyed it – and I have friends who have read Larson’s other books and they highly recommend them too. Thanks for the visit, Priscilla 🙂

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