Journalist Erik Larson, whose blockbuster The Devil in the White City is still on the New York Times bestseller list more than two years after its initial release, doesn't like to hear the word "formula" applied to his new book, Thunderstruck.
But Devil visited the turn of the last century, using a dual narrative approach, alternating between two disparate characters one, a psychopathic serial murderer, and the other, a visionary architect and organizer of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair who ultimately meet in dramatic fashion. And so does Thunderstruck.
Set in London, Larson's newest epic follows Guglielmo Marconi's quest to establish wireless communication across continents and oceans, and the middling life of Dr. H.H. Crippen, an American living in London who murders his overbearing wife. The alternating narratives barely shadow one another until a thrilling chase sequence near the end, when Crippen attempts to escape police investigators by boarding an ocean liner to Canada, and an international manhunt, guided by Marconi's wireless telegraph equipment aboard ship, ensues.
"I was afraid that people would start talking about formula," says Larson, "but I have to tell you that after finishing the final draft of Devil in the White City, I was storming around the house saying, "There's no way in hell I'm doing another of those dual narratives.' I kind of hoped my next book would be a small, straightforward narrative, about the size of a Mitch Albom book."
But in weighing ideas for his next book, Larson was taken with the concept of invention, particularly the history of wireless communication and the historic "great hush" that preceded it. He stumbled upon a Web site called marconicalling.com, an astonishing wealth of information on the unlikely inventor and his corporation's history. On the site, he happened upon the name Crippen a research accident that left him reeling.
"I had first heard about [Crippen] from my mother, a murder junkie, when I was a child," Larson says. "I can tell you where I was standing in my house when I first heard the name. I didn't know any details, just a vague recall of this kind of horror, of romance with a grisly tinge. I certainly didn't know about the big chase then here I stumbled upon it on this Web site about wireless [technology]. It was full of the stuff I really like in a book: Scotland Yard, ships, wireless, murder, a chase a classic little-boy scenario."
The biggest challenge in writing Thunderstruck, says Larson, a prodigious researcher, was capturing the flavor of early 20th-century London as accurately and richly as he had captured vintage Chicago. And though the writer says he normally shuns researching on the Internet, he found a Web site that suited his needs.
"The Bolles Collection, archived online, are these old walking guides to London. They enter all of the books into their database, keyed to maps of the period. You can type in an address, a name, a physical feature, and these essays come up, with writers of the time describing what a particular place was like, what it smelled like, how people dressed up the front of their houses, what was in the windows."
Though Larson says he's done with murder and won't write about another, he remains fascinated with the time period of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It bustled with scientific discovery and technological advancement, when those things still held mystique and wonder for the general public.
- Erik Larson digs the turn of the last century. Hence the black-and-white photo.
"Scientific advances, then, were accessible," he says. "Whether it was giant ocean liners racing across the Atlantic, or photographs or posters of railroads and locomotives, regular people could experience the scientific advancement; it was something you could touch."
Science writing of that time, he says, was different than the specialized technical writing of today, igniting the imaginations of a lay readership.
"The scientific writing at that time was amazing, literate and accessible," he says. "You or I could sit down and read a scientific paper about a discovery and really understand it."
By Erik Larson
New York: Crown Publishing Group
Erik Larson will read from and sign Thunderstruck
The Tattered Cover Bookstore, 2526 E. Colfax Ave., Denver
Thursday, Nov. 9, 7:30 p.m.
Call 303/322-7727 for more information.