Marconi--And Cheese

By grafting together the story of the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago and the tale of a serial killer who worked that city's darker corners while the fair was in progress, Erik Larson produced a huge nonfiction best seller: 2003's "The Devil in the White City." His new book, "Thunderstruck," apes the formula: this time he links a murder in Edwardian England with Guglielmo Marconi's efforts to perfect the wireless telegraph. But where the story of the Chicago killer provided an effectively lurid contrast to the utopian idealism of the Exposition, the tales here seem to be jockeying for space. And one of them is a lot better than the other.

Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen was once a world-famous murderer. In 1910, he killed his wife, chopped her up and buried her in their London basement, then fled to Canada with his sweetheart. He was apprehended, brought back to London, convicted and hanged. The trial drew 4,000 spectators, including Arthur Conan Doyle and W. S. Gilbert; years later, Alfred Hitchcock used elements of the case in both "Rope" and "Rear Window."

Newspaper readers kept up with Scotland Yard's manhunt as it was in progress. While crossing the Atlantic, the captain of the fugitives' ship wired back to England; detectives took a faster ship and beat them to Canada. This is Larson's chief link: Marconi's invention hastened the pair's capture, and may have been the key. It's a good point, but a frail connection.

Crippen wasn't much of a master criminal. He let his girlfriend wear his dead wife's clothes and jewels; as soon as the police, alerted by the dead woman's friends, began to investigate, he fled, virtually declaring his guilt. Yet Larson spends several hundred tedious pages on the murder--down to the number of hand-kerchiefs Crippen left behind after he was executed. (Six.)

All this gets in the way of the absorbing story of Marconi's struggle to perfect the wireless telegraph. Marconi was a rich kid through and through: on an ocean voyage, he simply threw his dirty socks out the porthole. Educated by his mother, he was no credentialed scientist. Only a genius: a seat-of-the-pants inventor like Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell, so obsessed with his mission that he skipped both his parents' funerals. Larson does such a fine job with Marconi that a reader can't help wishing he'd simply written a book about him and his battles with the British scientific establishment, the magician Nevil Maskelyne and the German kaiser. There is such a book, actually, inside the covers of "Thunderstruck." It's just that you have to push aside all the dull pages about a murder long forgotten, and with good reason.