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.