Like much of the North American reading population, I enjoyed Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City, a book which deftly intertwined the design and development of the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition (focusing on Daniel Burnham’s leadership) and the grisly murders in a house near the exposition. So, I picked up Larson’s latest, Thunderstruck as travel reading.
Thunderstruck is nowhere near as entertaining as Devil, and for a very simple reason. In the two stories that comprise Devil, the protagonists are compelling characters in whose fate you’re interested — Daniel Burnham in trying to achieve a grand vision for a world’s fair, Dr. H. H. Holmes in his dastardly and ingenious method of dispatching wives. (You might not be sympathetic to these characters, but you’ll find them continually engaging).
In Thunderstruck, Larson’s protagonists are Guglielmo Marconi (the inventor of wireless telegraphy, in a role here akin to Birnham’s) and Hawley Crippen (the criminal, and thus analogous to Holmes). The problem is, neither of these people are all that interesting to follow. Marconi is a self-obsessed, conniving, socially inept, paranoid boor. You don’t root for his success, and you don’t really care when others threaten to overtake him. Crippen is a mousy, hen-pecked, and, well, simply pathetic boob. You feel sorry for him, perhaps, but he elicits no fascination for his mechanisms and plotting the way that Holmes did.
So, Thunderstruck spends a great deal of time chronicling the activities of two unlikable people. For me, the only thing that saved the book is the period detail — the historic context is kind of fun. But it’s definitely nothing to seek out, and will likely only disappoint fans of Devil.