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Monday, August 18, 2008

Book Discussion: Thunderstruck

Today at the Berwyn Public Library, we discussed Eric Larson's Thunderstruck. In this follow-up to the hugely popular Devil in the White City, Larson again employs his alternating stories style to follow a historical event and a gruesome murder, except this time it is on the other side of the ocean. Larson chooses to recount what he describes as England's second most famous murderer, who it turns out, was only captured because of a new invention, Marconi's transatlantic wireless. In alternating chapters we get the story of Dr. Crippen, a failed American doctor turned potions hawker who brutally murdered his wife in their London home, and the social inept inventor Marconi.

It had been said, before Larson's book, that the international manhunt and ultimate maritime capture of Dr. Crippen and his girlfriend did more to convince people of the usefulness of Marconi's invention than any marketing or demonstrations undertaken by the inventor himself. Larson plays off of this bit of history by building the story of these 2 men, side by side on the page (even if the historical time lines are not exclusively concurrent), and ends with, what everyone at our discussion agreed, was an exciting and worthwhile conclusion.

That is not to say everyone in the discussion loved the book. Many mentioned that they liked Devil in the White City better. Some cited the fact that the setting for Devil was more interesting since we all live near Chicago, but others were turned off by the strong history of science aspect. Interestingly, many also liked this part. There is a lot of explanations into how Marconi used trial and error to invent the wireless and it can get to be a bit much for readers who do not care about electricity and radio transmissions. Finally, the group was also mixed between those who enjoy and do not enjoy mysteries, and since this book had the true crime element, this was crucial to how appealing each reader found the work as a whole.

However, Larson did break up the science by switching to Crippen's more narrative story after each chapter on Marconi. And, everyone, no matter how much they enjoyed the book overall, agreed that once the murder part of the story started to heat up, they were swept up in the story and couldn't stop turning the pages. One participant went so far as to note the page at which she finally starting enjoying the book. (It was when the soon to be dead wife starting suspecting something was going on between her husband and his typist).

Overall, the group agreed that the first 1/2 of the book, at least the parts about Marconi, could have been shortened by 1/2 and they still would have understood the importance of his invention and the sensation it turned the Crippen crime and capture into. It is importance to note that our group had read Larson before, so we had faith he would eventually merge the alternating stories together into a compelling conclusion; but a group without this knowledge, might not have been willing to "stick it out."

Thunderstruck also led us to talk about how the truth is stranger, and messier, than fiction. It was mentioned many times that Crippen and Marconi were both such oddballs that if we did not know they were real people, we would not have believed them as characters. The crime itself also turned out to be quite grisly and the state of the located remains and how the crime was probably perpetrated were both graphically described. This turned off even some of the mystery readers, but we then discussed how in the true crime genre in general, readers are willing to accept more gore than they would normally enjoy in a mystery novel, since the writer can argue that s/he is simply reporting the facts.

Finally, we addressed the topic of instant communication and real time reporting, two very common occurrences today, which only began after Crippen's arrest. First, a participant mentioned how much Inspector Dew's chase of Crippen on a faster boat across the ocean, and its descriptions in newspapers around the world (in just about real time) reminded her of the coverage and chase of OJ Simpson. In fact, she noted how she caught herself wondering how CNN would have covered the Crippen case. I am sure Marconi would have been brought in as an "expert" on Larry King.

Marconi's invention, we decided, ended a time of innocence. We could no longer stay in isolation to the outside world. In cases like natural disasters, we thought this was great. Aid can get to people who need it faster and we can also use the immense amount of information to know if that aid and the response is being carried out correctly. But, in cases like celebrity reporting, we also decided, there is too much information and we just don't care.

There are a few ways one could explore nonfiction readalikes for Thunderstruck. The first is to find a book that looks at an intellectual pursuit and a murderer. In this case there is Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman which follows the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary and one of its biggest contributors, Dr. W.C. Minor, a certified lunatic and convicted murderer.

In finding other readalikes, one needs to look at whether or not the reader in question liked the history of science aspect. For those readers, Dava Sobel's Longitude which follows the race to create a clock that can keep accurate time on the seas, and thus, accurately chart a ship's longitude is an excellent (and short) suggestion. Then there are those fans of true-crime. Here there are literally thousands of suggestions, but Anne Rule, the queen of true crime, is a great author to begin with. Also, I highly recommend Larson's first book, Isaac's Storm which chronicles the birth of the National Weather Service and the devastating Galveston hurricane in 1900. Although it was written before Katrina, this book is an even more compelling read in light of recent events.

For fiction readers who enjoyed Thunderstruck I would like to suggest, The Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfeld. Although this mystery novel takes place in America, it is during the same time period and has real life characters (Drs. Freud and Jung). Many participants also noted how very British Thunderstruck was. When pressed to explain further, they said in many places it had the feel of a traditional British mystery. After hearing that, and given that Larson quotes, P.D. James, the Queen of the British mystery, in his opening reader's note, I would also suggest readers try one of her many novels.

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