I’m not really sure what has spurred on America’s recent fascination with true crime, but it has led to some tremendous work. All of a sudden we’re being inundated with quality documentaries, podcasts, series, and books. And it’s been a blast. I’ve always been a big fan of crime and true crime in particular has been a consistent source of fascination for me. And if you have an interest in true crime and books, it’s inevitable that sooner or later you’re going to come across Erik Larson’s truly wonderful book The Devil in the White City. It’s a monumentally enjoyable book that tells two stories that end up becoming linked. We learn about the men behind the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and the killings of notorious serial killer H H Holmes, who built himself a veritable murder-hotel that operated during the Fair. It’s an amazing book, and I highly recommend that everyone who is interested in crime check it out. Because, if you’re like me, I think you’ll be shocked at how fascinating the World’s Fair side of things are, and not just the H H Holmes story is. I was shocked to finish that book and find that I was equally fascinated with stories of architecture and Fair planning as I was with a man designing a building specifically so he can efficiently kill and dispose of strangers. It’s a great book and Larson is a skilled writer, so after quite a bit of time dragging my feet I decided to check out another of Larson’s books, specifically the direct follow-up to Devil in the White City, Thunderstruck.
The thing that first strikes you when you read Thunderstruck is probably incredibly similar it is to Devil in the White City, from a structural point of view. Both books examine a lurid crime while simultaneously educating the reader about something else that becomes involved with the crime. In Thunderstruck’s case these two stories collide on board a ship called the Montrose that was traveling across the Atlantic in 1910. Aboard the ship were two people, Dr. Hawley Crippen and Ethel le Neve, both of whom were wanted by Scotland Yard in connection for the disappearance and presumed death of Crippen’s wife Belle Elmore. Crippen was a depressed snake-oil salesman who was in an incredibly unhappy marriage with Belle, a rambunctious and mean woman who treated Crippen horribly. And just when Crippen met a young woman named Ethel and started an affair, Belle happened to vanish. Crippen told the police that she had finally left him and gone to America, like she’d threatened for years, and promised that everything was on the level. He then promptly fled the country with Ethel, having her dress like a boy and concoct a false identity. Which is made even more suspicious when the police find a mutilated human body buried under Crippen’s house. And thus Scotland Yard were on a manhunt for Crippen and le Neve, who seemed to completely vanish.
But the thing that finally caught them, aboard the Montrose, and the thing that made this fairly run of the mill murder story so sensational and well-known, was the work of Guglielmo Marconi. Which brings us to our other story, that of the tinkerer Marconi who ended up, more or less accidentally, creating radio. Marconi wasn’t a trained engineer or scientist, but just seemed like a natural, and he ended up messing around with available technology until he created a form of telegraphy that was able to transmit without wires. We then follow Marconi as he continues to improve his technology, increasing its range and accuracy while also struggling to form a viable business out of this new procedure. We learn all about the obsessive Marconi, and his seemingly never-ending struggle to transmit a message across the Atlantic Ocean. We see him work and work, and mostly fail, but never give up his dream that eventually becomes an all-encompassing obsession. And it just so happens that when the Crippen murder occurs, the only way that they were able to find the doctor and le Neve was when the news of crime was picked up by the Montrose over the Marconi, and the captain recognized them. This then got the police on Crippen’s trail, and they boarded a ship that managed to overtake them and beat them to Quebec, where they were able to arrest Crippen. And in the process they proved that radio was a viable means of communication, and the story became the first sensational tabloid murder that was able to enrapture the whole world, because they were able to keep everyone updated instantly, over the air.
Like I said earlier, this book felt extremely similar to the Devil in the White City. Which certainly makes sense. Both are the stories of a murder mixed in with another story that becomes linked. And after the massive success of Devil in the White City it stood to reason that Larson would take that formula and run with it. However, I will say that while I greatly enjoyed this book, it didn’t quite live up to it’s predecessor. Both stories were certainly engaging, and it was well-written like Devil in the White City, but there was just something about it that didn’t work as well for me. Just like the previous book I was shocked to find that I left the book being more engaged by Marconi’s struggle than the story of Dr. Crippen, but in this case I find it a little less shocking. The story of H H Holmes is an absurd one that would seem unrealistic if it was in a movie, and yet it’s fully true. And yet I read that book and was enthralled with the quest to make a World’s Fair. This time I found both stories less compelling. Marconi’s quest to create a legitimize a new form of communication isn’t really the type of story that I would actively seek out on its own, but it still managed to be the most interesting part of the book, since the story of Dr. Hawley Crippen was so very run-of-the-mill. Which seems like an absurd thing to say, but it basically just boiled down to a crime of passion. Thousands of murders like this happen in a year, and there wasn’t anything particularly novel about it, except for how they were caught. The use of Marconi’s technology and the world-wide media circus that it instilled are really what make this story, and it only comes up in the last section of the book. It’s perhaps a little unfair to compare this book so heavily against it’s predecessor, but when the two books are so similar, it’s hard not to. This is by no means a bad book, both stories were engaging and interesting, but if you have a choice between them, pick up Devil in the White City.
Thunderstruck was written by Erik Larson, 2006.