From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Devil in the White City, 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.
Excerpted from Thunderstruck by Erik Larson, the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Devil in the White City. Copyright © 2006 by Erik Larson. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
“Larson is a marvelous writer...superb at creating characters with a few short strokes.” —The New York Times Book Review
“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.” —Washington Post
“A ripping yarn of murder and invention.” —Los Angeles Times
“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.”
“[Larson] interweaves gripping storylines about a cryptic murderer and the race for technology in the early 20th century. An edge-of-the-seat read.” —People
“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.” —Miami Herald
“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.” —Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“Captivating...with Thunderstruck, Larson again demonstrates that he's one of the best nonfiction writers around and proves that real-life murders can be as compelling to read about as fictional ones.” —Dallas/Forth Worth Star-Telegram
“[Larson] captures the human capacity for wonder at the turn of the century...[he] has perfected a narrative form of his own invention.” —Cleveland Plain Dealer
“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!”
“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.”
1. In his note to the reader, Larson quotes P. D. James: “Murder, the unique crime, is a paradigm of its age.” How is the murder in Thunderstruck a paradigm of its time? Can you think of a notorious murder in our own era that is an equivalent?
2. The murderer Hawley Harvey Crippen and the inventor Guglielmo Marconi came from similarly prosperous backgrounds, and yet their lives took quite opposite turns. Compare the two men as characters–in what ways are they similar, and in what ways are they different? Who would you most like to have met, and why?
3. Now compare the two men to their respective spouses–is Marconi at all like Beatrice? What about Crippen and Belle?
4. Larson mentions Marconi’s “social blindness” throughout the book, considering it a defining trait. How did it affect Marconi’s success or failure? What was Crippen’s defining trait?
5. In specific terms, Crippen and Marconi were not linked–they never interacted with each other–and yet in Larson’s hands their stories fit together naturally. Why do you think that is? In what ways do the two men’s lives play off each other? How do you imagine they would have gotten along, had they actually met?
6. Marconi and Crippen were both foreigners in England, and yet they received very different treatment from the moment of their respective arrivals. Why? How is this reminiscent of the ways foreigners are treated in this country today?
7. Around the turn of the twentieth century, the supernatural, medical sleight-of-hand, and science were often treated in similar fashion–consider Lodge’s “scientific” studies of the paranormal, Crippen’s involvement in patent medicine, and the public’s mistrust of Marconi’s wireless technology. What parallels, if any, do you see to the way we treat emerging technologies now?
8. Isolation was a very real thing in those days, without the benefits of modern communication methods. How did Marconi’s invention change the world? Ultimately, do you think it was a change for the better, or are there benefits to the old ways?
9. Throughout the book, there are countless instances of betrayal: Marconi betrays Preece and vice versa, Belle betrays Crippen, Fleming betrays Lodge. Discuss the idea of betrayal and the specifics of it in Thunderstruck. In your opinion, whose betrayal is the most damaging?
10. Secrecy was vital to both Marconi and Crippen, but for very different reasons. Discuss the nature of their secrets, the motivations for them, and the ultimate effects.
11. Much of Marconi’s success was apparently based on gut instinct and simple trial and error, rather than any understanding of the science that lay beneath his discoveries. How would his methods be received now?
12. On page 69, Larson says that Marconi “was an entrepreneur of a kind that would become familiar to the world only a century or so later, with the advent of the so-called ‘start-up’ company.” What did he mean by this? Do Marconi’s practices remind you of any specific business leaders today?
13. Each man had two major romantic relationships in the book. Which, if any, was the healthiest? Which woman did you like best, and why?
14. Crippen is willing to subsidize Belle’s lifestyle and even her relationship with another man, only to murder her years later. Why do you think he behaves this way? Why didn’t he just cut her off financially? What finally drove him to murder?
15. Throughout the book, Larson foreshadows events that will come to pass in later pages. What purpose does this serve? How did you respond?
16. Crippen’s method for disposing of Belle’s body was quite gruesome. Larson quotes Raymond Chandler on page 377: “I cannot see why a man who would go to the enormous labor of deboning and de-sexing and de-heading an entire corpse would not take the rather slight extra labor of disposing of the flesh in the same way, rather than bury it at all.” Why do you think Crippen did it in that particular way? What does this say about him?
17. Do you believe that Ethel had no idea what had happened to Belle? Why, or why not?
18. The realities of an international manhunt were very different in the early twentieth century than they are today–as Larson says on page 341, “Wireless had made the sea less safe for criminals on the run.” Why has it changed so, and in what ways? Is it possible to hide in our world?
19. Discuss the media circus surrounding Dew’s chase of Crippen. Was this the beginning of a new era in journalism? What parallels do you see to many celebrities’ current war with the paparazzi? Compare the pursuit of Crippen to the O. J. Simpson chase.
20. If it weren’t for Marconi’s invention, do you think Crippen would have been caught? How might it have played out otherwise?
21. On page 379, Larson says, “The Crippen saga did more to accelerate the acceptance of wireless as a practical tool than anything the Marconi company previously had attempted.” Why do you think that is? What might have happened to wireless technology if not for Crippen?
22. At the very end of the book, Larson writes that Ethel was asked if she would still marry Crippen even after learning all that he had done. What do you think her answer was?
23. Why do you think Larson gave this book the title Thunderstruck? How does the term apply to Marconi and Crippen?