Seattle author Erik Larson's latest nonfiction potboiler, Thunderstruck (Crown, 463 pages, $25.95), tries to duplicate the winning formula of his New York Times bestseller The Devil in the White City. Both books parallel the achievements of a turn-of-the-20th-century genius with the grisly crimes of a cold-blooded killer. In Thunderstruck, the genius is Guglielmo Marconi, an Italian dandy who invented radio while barely out of his teens. The archfiend is Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen, a mild-mannered American physician living in London who, in 1910, poisoned his wife and buried her remains under the brick floor of their cellar. Larson's book drifts along tediously for the first 300 pages, switching back and forth between the petty rivalries and stupefying technical minutiae of Marconi's work on wireless telegraphy and Crippen's unhappy marriage to a failed showgirl who squanders his money on furs, evening gowns and jewels, and threatens to leave him for other men. Then, as the horror of Mrs. Crippen's comeuppance is revealed—well, let's just say you won't want to read page 307 aloud at the Thanksgiving table, particularly if your guests enjoy giblets with their turkey.
Like Upton Sinclair in The Jungle, Larson aims at the public's heart (or mind) and hits it in the stomach. Marconi, despite the undeniable stature of his achievement, cuts a pampered, unsympathetic figure. No starving inventor he, Marconi dines in the finest restaurants, drinks only the finest wines, stays in the finest hotels and travels in luxurious ocean liners while "struggling" to perfect transatlantic wireless communication. As a husband and father, he's an abject failure. Crippen, despite the horrific nature of his wife's murder, adored her by all accounts and certainly indulged her every whim until her abuse pushed him past the breaking point. When Crippen finds deep, abiding love with his secretary, the reader can't help but wish the doomed couple will somehow escape to America, but there's no beating Marconi's infernal invention, which could beam messages across the Atlantic at the speed of light. The result leaves us not so much in awe of the revolution sparked by Marconi as bewildered at the demons that emanated from so timid a spirit as Crippen. We are less "thunderstruck" by Larson's story of technology triumphant than we are dumbstruck by the glimpse he offers us into the abyss.
Erik Larson appears at Powell's Books at Cedar Hills Crossing, 3205 SW Cedar Hills Blvd., 228-4651. 7 pm Monday, Nov. 20. Free.