Erik Larsen writes a unique sort of historical novel in which he brings within the same covers disparate stories that somehow relate to a single overall event. Before Thunderstruck, I read—The Devil in the White City—which parallels the story of the construction of the Chicago world’s fair and the plotting of a murderer whose most notable crimes occurred in conjunction with the white city, which is what the modern wonder community the fair created was called. The result was a mystery full of drama and historical/political intrigue. You know the fair got built, but while you’re reading, you truly wonder it ever will, and when you’re finished, you wonder how it ever did. From the impossibility of constructing Mr. Ferris’s wheel to the peril of electrifying such a huge project, the risks and challenges created enormous suspense. All that, combined with the story of a serial killer (a real one) come to town looking for innocent victims among the chaos of creation, made for a first rate read.
Thunderstruck, though plenty interesting, is less successful. I think the problem is not so much Larsen’s writing as that the subjects don’t integrate quite as well as those of the The Devil in the White City. The two events here are Marconi’s invention and marketing of the radio and a bizarre domestic murder. How these connect, I won’t disclose in case you want to read it. Like The Devil in the White, it’s all true, well-researched, and gives you some history you’ve probably never known and would love to find out about. Even though it’s not the cliff-hanger that White City is, the crime is original, its detection a master stroke of Scotland yard deduction and footwork (by the same real-life cop who brought you the Jack the Ripper investigation years earlier), Well-written, educational and entertaining. You can do a lot worse than that.