Murder and technological innovation connect in Edwardian Britain

Erik Larson writes narrative non-fiction and he writes it very well indeed. The most recent book of his which I have read and reviewed is The Splendid and the Vile (see review here) which is about WW2 Britain and especially those who surround Winston Churchill. Thunderstruck which I have just finished reading is also set in England but is about events which happened in 1910.

The Edwardian period in Britain was a time of great technological advance, especially in communications. It was the time that the wireless system began to be developed and several inventors were vying to make their system the one that would be able to communicate across the Atlantic without undersea cables. Marconi is the best known of the people involved but the author introduces us to other inventors and innovators and also tells us about their completion and some of the dirty tricks they played on one another. I have no particular scientific background but I didn’t need it to follow the story because the author concentrates on the people rather than the details of the technology – and the people are all very interesting.

Running alongside the story of the wireless innovations the author also tells us the story of two inhabitants of Edwardian London, Dr and Mrs Crippen and about their life together and what causes Dr Crippen to kill his wife and hide her body. This part of the book shows us how ordinary people lived at the time of these great innovations and eventually the two strands come together in a telegraph exchange between the liner on which Crippen and his mistress are sailing to America and the shore which famously results in the capture of the fleeing pair.

The author tells both these stories very well and the switches between the two parts of the book are done smoothly. It’s an effective technique to combine two very different strands in one book and the same author did it very successfully in The Devil in the White City which is set in Chicago in 1893 and combines the stories of the World’s Great Fair held in the city with the activities of a prolific serial killer at the time. I would also recommend, on a lighter note, Robin Paige’s cosy crime novel Death at the Lizard which has Marconi has a main character and is set in the midst of this technological competition and includes in a fictional narrative many of the events that Erik Larson describes.

Thunderstruck was a gripping book and, despite the murder at the heart of the narrative, a very enjoyable one.

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