In an era of blossoming spiritualism, the idea of invisible airwaves traveling around the globe carrying messages without benefit of physical attachment may have seemed more fantastic than the belief that ghosts and spirits exist and communicate from beyond the grave. But men and women of the age wanted to believe.
Guglielmo Marconi, born of an Italian father and an Irish mother, was the biggest believer of them all. Rather lacking in the social skills arena, Marconi was highly adept at his science. Driven by an obsession with his fantastic ideas, he thrust himself into his work --- much to the dismay of his competitors, of whom there was certainly no shortage. Wealthy at a very young age, Marconi continued to strive to perfect wireless telegraphy, making it ever more powerful with ever longer ranges. And he still found time for the ladies, for he liked the ladies a great deal.
As Marconi walked the streets of London, he quite likely crossed paths with Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen, a somewhat mousy man of small stature and a cool nature. Dr. Crippen also liked the ladies. One who especially caught his eye could be best described as robust, voluptuous, maybe even bawdy, certainly manipulative and demanding. He pursued Cora Turner, an aspiring entertainer who possessed almost no talent, with his imperturbable manner. Why Cora eventually married him is anybody's guess, as love didn't seem to be part of the equation --- at least on her side. His promise of success may have lured her.
At any rate, after several disappointing years of marriage, the two of them took to separate bedrooms, although they continued to appear the happy couple in public. Cora had long since changed her name to Belle Elmore, maybe for the stage or maybe just on a whim. And she began calling her husband Peter. Inconstancy seemed to be a major theme with her.
While Marconi was courting another young woman, intent on making her his wife, Dr. Crippen was looking for ways to drive Belle away. Her manifold threats of leaving him, which once had the power to make him cringe, now fell on ears eager to hear the last of her, for he had found a new soul mate in the form of a lovely typist, Ethel Le Neve.
Whether Crippen simply snapped or had planned to kill Belle for a period of time has never been cleared up. But whatever happened at No. 39 Hilldrop Crescent at the conclusion of a social dinner sealed the fates of Belle and her husband and his lover. When Belle failed to appear for several days after that night and Miss Le Neve was seen strolling boldly on the doctor's arm, wearing some of the missing woman's jewelry, Belle's friends started asking questions. It didn't take long before Le Neve feared the ruin of her reputation, and Dr. Crippen suggested they make a fresh start.
Dr. Crippen might have gotten away with the murder had the investigating policeman not been Chief Inspector Dew of New Scotland Yard. Having begun his career with the Jack the Ripper case, Dew was unwilling to let this one go unsolved. He staunchly followed his instincts, and they paid off --- big time. As did Marconi's. As for Crippen, he finally found true love. Unfortunately, it came a little too late.
Erik Larson has a winning combination here --- pairing a celebrated segment of history with a heinous crime --- making what, in the wrong hands, could turn out as a dull account into a fast-paced drama. Anyone who enjoyed Larson's #1 bestseller THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY will revel in THUNDERSTRUCK. A lightning read!
Reviewed by Kate Ayers on January 23, 2011