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'Thunderstruck': Twinned Tales of Murder, Marconi

Oct 20, 2006 (All Things Considered)

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The best-selling author Erik Larson writes books that weave together multiple plots based on actual events.

His best-known books are Issac's Storm, about Galveston's killer hurricane, and The Devil in The White City, about the architect who built Chicago's World's Fair and the serial killer who preyed on women drawn to that city.

In his new book, Thunderstruck, Larson dives into the North London Cellar Murder, writing about a notorious crime just prior to World War I.

It's a tale of two men: Harvey Hawley Crippen, a seemingly mild-mannered doctor who murdered his wife, and Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor who created the wireless telegraph — the device that helped capture Crippen as he fled.

Larson said the idea for Thunderstruck struck him quite by accident. He had originally thought he would write a book about the telegraph and began researching.

On a Web site about Marconi, Larson learned of the connection between the North London Cellar Murder and the wireless telegraph: a trans-Atlantic chase in which Crippen is trying to flee Great Britain with his lover.

Larson explains that unbeknownst to Crippen, the entire world is listening to his flight, thanks to wireless. He's completely unaware that he's being followed by a Scotland Yard detective on another ocean liner.

"I thought, 'Wow, this is just an amazing confluence of invention and murder,'" Larson says.

Larson also says the dual stories provided a look at science, superstition and middle-class marriage in the Edwardian era through a very different window.

As a writer, Larson says he prefers to do his own research. He traveled to London, Rome, Bologna, Munich and Nova Scotia during the course of researching Thunderstruck.

Larson has other well-established writing habits. With dual narratives, he says, there's "no alternative": You have to lay the entire book out on the floor, peel apart both stories, lay them side by side, and adjust them until they're perfect.

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