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Captured by wireless
When you find a winning formula, why mess with it? (Just ask those folks who dreamed up New Coke.) Hence, it should come as no surprise that Erik Larson has followed The Devil in the White Cityhis best-selling popular history that interlocked the stories of serial killer H.H. Holmes and Daniel Burnham, the architect of the 1893 Chicago World's Fairwith another convergent tale of ghoulish crime and scientific achievement drawn from the annals of the turn of the 20th century.
Thunderstruck brings together the stories of two Edwardian celebrities, one famous, one infamous. The famous one is Guglielmo Marconi, the Italian inventor who persisted against all oddsand considerable oppositionto prove that wireless telegraphy was possible. His discovery and its implementation would change global communication forever. It would also change the fate of Hawley Harvey Crippen, a notorious wife murderer who, as Larson tells it, owed his eventual capture to Marconi's newfangled apparatus.
Crippen was certainly England's most high-profile criminal since Jack the Ripper. A mild-mannered American-born doctor, he poisoned his overbearing wife, Belle, and buried her dismembered body in the coal cellar. For months he maintained that Belle had left him and gone to America, where she had been stricken with pneumonia and died. At first, the self-effacing doctor was believed, but when his secretary, Ethel Le Neve, began showing up with him at social functions, wearing Belle's jewels and furs, the dead woman's friends began to question the story. Scotland Yard investigated, and Crippen and Le Neve, who was dressed as a teenage boy, fled England for the continent, and then boarded a ship to Canada. This unlikely story is as compelling a true crime yarn as ever there was, and Larson recounts it well. From Crippen's childhood to his trial and conviction, we come to know, and to a degree, sympathize with, this unlikeliest of killers.
Using the same format as he did in The Devil in the White City, Larson tells Marconi's concurrent story in alternating chapters. That nobler tale begins in Italy where the curious young man first parlayed an amateur interest in science into a prototype of the machine that would make him wealthy and famous, and win him the Nobel Prize for physics (a subject he never formally studied). He moved to London in 1893 with his Irish mother, an heir to the Jameson whiskey fortune, just a year before Crippen himself arrived there from New York. For the next decade, Marconi continued to experiment with wireless telegraphy, building a series of larger and larger transmission stations in western Britain, Ireland, Cape Cod and Canada's maritime provinces in an attempt to send Morse code through the ether across the Atlantic. In time, of course, he did just that.
It is understandable that Larson wishes to give equal time to Marconi's story, but despite one broken engagement to an American heiress and another histrionic courtship that led to a rather airless marriage, the avowed workaholic's tale tends toward the dry.
Crippen's story is riveting, however, and the later chapters of Thunderstruck, where the unsuspecting Crippen and Le Neve are pursued across the ocean by the wily Chief Inspector Walter Dew, read like a high-end thriller. The public on both sides of the pond waited breathlessly to see if Dew would beat Crippen to Canada and arrest him before he had another chance to get away.
Thunderstruck beautifully conveys how revolutionary Marconi's invention was, changing perceptions of distance and time forever. It is sometimes easy to forget in our age of cell phones, satellite transmission and the Internet that not so long ago communication was hamstrung by major limitations and that Marconi did, indeed, change the world. It was the pursuit of Crippen, Larson claims, that gained the wireless its first great public acceptance as a practical tool. Even Crippen himself marveled at Marconi's "wonderful invention" as he listened to the crackle of the wireless antenna aboard the ship. The captain could only smile.
Robert Weibezahl is author of the novel The Wicked and the Dead.