Thunderstruck by Erik Larson
Devil in the White City, Larson's highly readable history of the Chicago World's Fair (coupled with the contemporaneous doings of a maniacal serial killer bent on torture and surreal architectural design), is exactly what popular history should be. It lures you in with the promise of something Weekly World News-ish, then holds you spellbound with more respectable information.
Thunderstruck attempts to do exactly the same thing, in exactly the same way -- the books are even set during the same time period (although the events of Thunderstruck take place in Victorian England rather than Victorian America). This time, however, Larson's formula -- alternating serious and lurid chapters, building suspense, pointing out ironic coincidences and places where the murder mystery intersects with the straight story-- hangs clumsily on his subject matter.
Thunderstruck examines the life of Marconi, inventor of the wireless telegraph, obsessive, and sometimes cruel. He blends the story of the development and implementation of Marconi's technology with that of the unassuming, timid Dr. Crippen, who nearly commits the perfect murder. Of course, the intersection here is that Crippen was captured thanks to Marconi's invention, but Larson sure takes his time getting to it. While Devil in the White City was crammed full of fascinating information, Thunderstruck spends a very long time saying very little. Marconi's innovations and biography are glossed over; meanwhile, the Crippen story is drawn out so exhaustively that its shock value is rather dilute.
Still, I finished it. The book was just interesting enough to keep me reading, although I was a little resentful about it. Larson is a talented historian who writes with a novelist's touch, and isn't afraid to explore a subplot or go off on a tangent. Sometimes these little flourishes are more enjoyable than the primary subject.*
For Larson fans, it's worth a skim, but otherwise, I'd suggest Devil in the White City or Isaac's Storm instead. That said, this book has been getting great reviews. Has anyone else read this? I'd like to know whether I'm way off base here, or if the big reviewers are just kissing up.
* Here, it's the story of Oliver Lodge, a competitor of Marconi's, whose pioneering work was often sidetracked by his obsession with the occult.