I’ve read a number of books by Erik Larson and mostly quite enjoyed them. However, imo, some are definitely better than others. The ones where there is a murder thrown into what is basically a moderately interesting history are not so good. That said, Larson’s skills are bountiful and he can make you keep reading even if it feels like blather.
By Erik Larson
Read by Bob Balaban 11h 56m
Rating: B+/ nonfiction history crime
A bit of a warning – there might be spoilers below because in nonfiction spoilers don’t often count (for me anyway). A reader might very well know how a certain criminal gets caught and convicted well before he reads the true crime novel about it; she might know the points of the Treaty of Versailles before reading Paris, 1919; he might know why Marconi won the Nobel Prize.
On the other hand, there are less notable events in history – the 1893 Chicago Exposition’s serial killer for instance (The Devil in the White City by Larson, 2003) where spoilers might be an issue, depending on how the author structures and writes the book.
I’ve read these books by Larson and given them ratings:
9.5 • Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History.
9 • In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin.
8.5 • The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair That Changed America.
8 • Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania. 7.5 • Thunderstruck.
7 • The Splendid and the Vile.
Thunderstruck felt slow to me. Most of the book seemed to be about Guglielmo Marconi and the difficulties he had getting his long distance radio really going, while the other part was about Hawley Crippen and how, why he murdered his wife which mostly felt like the boring story of an adulterer/killer.
Most of Marconi’s part in the whole story takes place years earlier when he was doing his inventing which got him rich and famous. His first transatlantic wireless radio message was sent and received in December of 1902. Crippen’s problems started piling up in about 1908 or ’09. That’s the same year Marconi won the Nobel prize which is interesting, I suppose. Their paths never personally crossed but in 1910 their lives kind of touched.
I think I’d probably “categorize” this as being something between History and True Crime the difference being that genre True Crime focuses a bit more on the gory details of the crime itself and its resolution via arrest and trial or death or something. History is more general about the era and biographies of the important people in the story; History is something you study in school. True Crime is a special kind of “history” focusing on an actual crime or crimes and the actions of the people involved.
That said, Larson does True Crime pretty well in Thunderstruck, integrating a sense of Crippen’s times, 1910, into a tightly told tale of murder and investigation. It’s just that most of it is character development of real people. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hawley_Harvey_Crippen
As I said, it’s slow to start. The first 3/4 of the book sets up what we know is going to happen in the last 1/4 and by the time I got to the detectives digging up what might have been the remains of a body I’d already almost put the book down a dozen times. But after that first body gets found then the pages fly by and I was quite satisfied.
Marconi made me think Mr Gums would like it, but “slow” makes me think he wouldn’t!
I have only read Isaac’s storm, which I enjoyed immensely. I have The Devil in the White City on my Kindle but haven’t read it yet. I’m keen to. It looks like you’d recommend it. Larson came to my mind recently when I wrote about Literary nonfiction in Australia. He’s one of the best known to me non-Aussie exponents of the “genre”.
Oh dear I missed your post yesterday, Sue! Yes, I think The Devil in White City is great. There’s a lot in there about how the architecture of the World’s Fair got to be and then interspersed is the story of a serial killer who was active at the fair. The architecture stuff is way better than I ever thought it would be – it’s the serial killer parts which almost seem intrusive.
I think I’m going to have to read The Splendid and the Vile again because I just wasn’t in the mood for it at the time.
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