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December 6-12, 2006

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'Freud at Work'

Thunderstruck
(By Erik Larson; Crown; 463 pages; $25.94 cloth)

In the summer of 1910, the world breathlessly followed the Transatlantic pursuit and capture of suspected murderer Hawley Harvey Crippen, who was traveling aboard the SS Montrose, from England to America, with his paramour Ethel Le Neve. Thanks to the modern miracle of wireless telegraphy, the ship's captain could relay his suspicions about his most-wanted passengers to Scotland Yard—and hence to a hungry press. Soon, everyone but Crippen and Le Neve knew that a sensational arrest would be made as soon as the Montrose came within sight of land. In Thunderstruck, Erik Larson uses this dramatic moment to intertwine the history of Guglielmo Marconi, inventor of wireless communications, and the sordid tale of Crippen, a Mr. Peepers-like doctor who murdered and then dismembered the opulent body of his annoying, adulteress wife in order to canoodle with his young private secretary, a crime that captivated the English public like no other since Jack the Ripper. As he did in The Devil in the White City, which combined the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 with the gory doings of a serial killer, Larson intercuts between the frantic efforts of Marconi to push his Hertzian Waves farther and farther out to sea with the growing suspicions of Crippen's neighbors when his wife goes missing and her jewels end up adorning another woman. The connection is a bit of a stretch since most of Marconi's advances took place almost a decade before Crippen deboned his wife and distributed the parts, but Larson is a masterful storyteller, driving his narrative along while still providing glimpses of Edwardian society. In the end, thought, even Larson can't answer a mystery that fascinated and baffled the likes of Alfred Hitchcock and Raymond Chandler: Why did a murderer so surgically skilled make some crucially stupid mistakes that led to his arrest? (The book, unlike too much popular history these days, also includes a meticulous set of footnotes and a complete bibliography.)

Review by Michael S. Gant


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