Bait readers with a ghoulish crime, then feed them a lofty historical narrative. Erik Larson tested the formula in his 2003 best-seller, The Devil in the White City, with, to my mind, mixed results. Though his bifurcated storytelling neatly captured the perils and promise of modernity, I recall flipping impatiently through windy sections about the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, itching to get back to the serial killer.
The hook of Larson’s problematic Thunderstruck is the grisly North London Cellar Murder. In 1910, a mousy patent-medicine salesman, Hawley Crippen, eviscerated and skinned his domineering wife, burying her organs in his basement. (The pelvis and skull were never found.) He then hopped a ship to Canada with his mistress, who disguised herself as a boy. The captain identified them almost immediately and police pursued them by communicating with the ship via a new technology: the wireless telegraph.
Chapter by chapter, Larson juxtaposes his oddly slapdash crime drama with a trivia-packed account of wireless inventor Guglielmo Marconi’s travails, which is a little like fleshing out the O.J. Simpson story with a history of the Ford Bronco. The development of the wireless has its fascinations, but against a gory sexual psychodrama it doesn’t stand a chance.