A couple years ago I picked up The Devil in the White City in an airport bookshop, and loved it — it’s the true (if ever so slightly sensationalized) story of Chicago during the World’s Fair, focusing on the men who designed the Fair’s buildings and a serial killer who preyed on the young women who came to work at the Fair. It basically combines my two favorite kinds of literature: historical nonfiction and murder mystery.
The same author has recently released another cracking book called Thunderstruck. It tells of how Marconi invented the telegraph (fascinating, really; I had no idea what a big deal it was) and how it helped lead to the capture of a murderer fleeing the police on a transatlantic cruise.
Some reviewers have given the author, Erik Larson, a hard time about the two books, accusing him of taking two random events and mashing them together into one incoherent storyline. But at the outset Larson claims to be giving a perspective on a certain period of history from the viewpoints of the two main groups of characters. He does sometimes try to make too-tenuous connections between, in this case, Marconi and the murderer, but I chalk that up to his slightly tabloid, eyebrows-raised, ominous-violins-in-background style of writing. Which is a compliment.
Anyway, it’s a ripper. I plowed through 150 pages of it on the plane last night and it was good enough to distract me both from the fact that I was 35,000 feet in the air and from the incredibly annoying teenage Jehovah’s Witness who sat behind me and talked, I’m not even remotely kidding, non-stop from takeoff to landing. Mostly about how excited she was to see heaven, no, really, so excited! At which point I had to pause and pray that the Lord would wait at least until we were safely on the ground to address that issue. Tangent over. Read the book.