Novelist Erik Larson’s relationship with Chicago and the surrounding suburbs has been a positive one. His nonfiction blockbuster “The Devil in the White City” linked a South Side serial killer to the 1893 World’s Fair held in the Windy City, and a strong fan base is bringing him back to Forest Park to promote his latest book.
On Oct. 25 at 4 p.m., Larson will be signing copies of his newest non-fiction narrative “Thunderstruck” at Centuries and Sleuths.
Store owner Augie Aleksy has apparently turned hundreds of readers on to Larson’s work and has found the same level of success with each book signing held at the downtown store. This will be Larson’s fourth appearance at Centuries and Sleuths.
“I was surprised by the intensity with which Chicago embraced “Devil in the White City,” Larson said. “The success of the book was beyond my imagination.”
Brisk sales and large crowds have greeted him at the Forest Park store.
“I love Centuries and Sleuths,” Larson said, “Augie is so passionate and he has such a stable of readers. Independent bookstores survive when the owner puts out a huge effort.”
Aleksy is equally appreciative of the best selling author ever since he found a reference to “Devil” in a catalogue. The book and author were not well known at that time but the Chicago-based story captivated Aleksy. The store’s Mystery Discussion Group even departed from its diet of whodunits to study the book. It was the first hardcover they ever discussed.
“So far, I’ve sold 221 hardbound copies and 117 paperbacks,” Aleksy said, “And we’ve had unbelievable turnouts for Erik’s book signings. His writing style makes history come alive. And, in person, he’s very gracious and open to criticism.”
“Thunderstruck” bears a passing resemblance to “Devil” insofar as having dual story lines about scientific triumph and sordid murder. In his new book, Larson pairs Guglielmo Marconi’s invention of the wireless with a sensational murder in Edwardian England. In the book’s stunning conclusion, Marconi’s new communication device plays a key role in the capture of the murderer.
“I know I’ll be accused of flogging a formula,” the writer said from his Seattle home, “but it wasn’t my intent to write another murder story. I certainly didn’t want to write another dual narrative–it’s like writing two books.”
However, the author’s interest was piqued when he was seeking information on the wireless on the Internet and found a reference to a mild-mannered murderer, Dr. Hawley Crippen. “It was totally prosaic,” Larson said. “Dumb luck.”
Larson spent two and a half years researching the story. His quest took him to Italy, Germany, England and Canada, where he interviewed Marconi’s descendants and ploughed through his personal papers. He even studied Italian so that he could translate documents and better communicate with his subjects. As added insurance, he brought his daughter Kristen with him to Italy.
“She’s fluent in Italian and is a striking young woman, so she literally opened doors for me.”
While in Rome at the time of the Pope’s funeral, father and daughter were eating in a small, out-of the-way restaurant when they stumbled upon a pair of world leaders.
“All of a sudden a caravan of cars comes screaming up,” Larson recalled, “Out come five or six Secret Service agents and Bill Clinton. Clinton said ‘hi’ to my daughter but didn’t say anything to me.” Five minutes later, the president of Ukraine, Victor Yushenko pulled up in his motorcade. “He looked like a washed-up lounge singer,” Larson joked.
In his research on Marconi, Larson discovered the brilliant inventor lacked human warmth. Marconi’s father was a wealthy farmer and businessman, who wanted his son to follow the same path. His mother, remarkably enough, was Anne Jameson, from the family that produced the famous Irish whiskey. She was a Protestant and had Guglielmo home-schooled to keep him from the clutches of the Catholic Church.
The boy developed an early fascination with electricity and spent his formative years on experiments to send messages through the “ether.” Though Marconi was somewhat lacking as a family man, Larson admired him.
“He could attract beautiful women and loyal employees,” Larson said.
“Thunderstruck” traces Marconi’s epic struggle against skepticism and the forces of nature to create a communication device that brought the whole world together.
Larson’s other main character Dr. Crippen also had some major flaws but Larson felt sympathy for the hen-pecked husband. Telling Crippen’s story also allowed Larson to document the life of a middle-class family in Edwardian England.
“We always hear about the upper class of that time and the lower class-like “Upstairs Downstairs”-but this is a social history of the decline of a middle class marriage in England,” Larson said.
Larson said the title for his new book didn’t come easily.
“The wireless stations made so much noise they were called “Thunder Factories,” he said, “The word thunderstruck means to be caught by surprise. So, I describe how a murderer is caught by wireless.”
Despite all his success Larson still turns to his wife for the most fundamental criticisms and edits. According to the author, she reads his drafts and jots down comments in the margin. Upward arrows indicate a passage is good, downward arrows tell Larson to delete the passage entirely and zzz’s mean she’s falling asleep. Larson’s favorite symbol to come across is “a sad face with tear streaks” which means his wife has been deeply touched.
“Devil” has touched countless readers and a film production is in the works. It was a National Book Award finalist. A film production for “Devil” is currently in the works.