Thunderstruck by Erik Larson is one of those books I really should have waited for the library to acquire, but I loved Larson’s Devil in the White City so much I broke down and bought it. Glad I did. Even though Thunderstruck didn’t achieve the heights that Devil did, it was only because Devil was a such a breakthrough; it would be like trying to replicate the Beatles or Citizen Kane.(By the way, have I hyped Devil in the White City enough? Okay, I’ll stop. I admit I have a serious bookcrush on this title. If Devil in the White City were a girl in a bar I’d be buying it drinks all night long, laughing at all its boring stories, and trying to get its number. Anyway.)Thunderstruck takes two stories that happen at roughly the same time, taking contemporary accounts from direct sources like court transcripts and newspaper articles, and interweaves them into a narrative that reads like fiction. The first story is Marconi’s invention of the radio in 1895 and his early attempts at convincing people to use it; the second is a 1910 murder that galvanized London. Larson takes these two stories and unfolds them, slowly and meaningfully, until both tales are going at full steam and off of a sudden they intersect, and Larson’s vision – and the vision of the book – finally unveils itself.
Larson is a master at ending the chapter with an innocuous but forboding statement. You’ll be reading along and so-and-so is chatting with a next-door neighbor about flowers or the price of eggs or something, and as they leave out of nowhere Larson will bust out with a “that’s the last time so-and-so ever saw him alive again” which makes you go WHAT and all of a sudden the seemingly mundane details from the conversation you just read becomes crucially important.
Another fun thing that Larson throws in to his narrative are the celebrities that pop up – he’s not doing this just for effect, but he does like to highlight the interesting or fantastical things that happen during the story to keep things even more entertaining than they already are. We see Nikola Tesla, apparently free from doing reshoots on The Prestige,as well as a president or two and Nevil Maskelyne, a giant of British stage magic.
Thunderstruck is great fun, both as a thrilling story and popular history. (Maybe not bookcrush territory, but still great fun.)