I’ll read anything by certain non-fiction writers. Timothy Egan has gotten me to read about the dust bowl era in The Worst Hard Time and forest fires in The Big Burn. Susan Orlean has fascinated me with orchids in The Orchid Thief and a German Shepherd dog in Rin Tin Tin. It’s not really the subject, but the writing that captivates.
And hey, you guys, the writing of Seattle author Erik Larson really captivates! I have a hold on his newest book Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania and haven’t read it yet but couldn’t wait to share it with you. When a new Erik Larson book arrives, I drop everything and read it. In my opinion, he’s one of the few authors who can make history positively come alive. And his opening note held forth a big promise: “I give you now the saga of the Lusitania and the myriad forces, large and achingly small, that converged one lovely day in May 1915 to produce a tragedy of monumental scale, whose true character and import have long been obscured in the mists of history.”
The book is filled with questions worth asking: why did the Admiralty not provide an escort to the Lusitania, given that the ship carried nearly 2,000 passengers and a vital cargo of ammunition and artillery shells? Why did British intelligence obsessively protect the HMS Orion and provide no protection to the Lusitania? Why did they not divert the Lusitania to the newer and safer North Channel route? And most of all, “why was the ship left on its own, with a proven killer of men and ships dead ahead in its path?” Did the British deliberately set up the Lusitania to force America’s hand to enter the war? Read Dead Wake and find out!
If you’re stuck in the hold queue for Dead Wake, why not try one of Larson’s earlier books? The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America reads like a murder mystery, full of suspense, creepy characters and scary settings. It tells the dual tales of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago (mostly through the eyes of lead architect Daniel Burnham), along with the sordid tale of H.H. Holmes, one of the first-ever modern serial killers. Holmes built a block-long hotel across the street from the fair which turned out in reality to be a massive multi-floor torture chamber, including secret passageways, dissection tables, and a body-sized gas oven in the basement. He used this location to kill up to perhaps as many as 200 young good-looking single women before he was finally caught. It’s an utterly fascinating, well-done and easily readable book that deserves its reputation and awards.
In Thunderstruck Larson again weaves a fascinating story of two men, an inventor named Guglielmo Marconi (who raced other inventors and scientists to be the first to find a way to transmit signals wirelessly) and a doctor and murderer named Hawley Harvey Crippen who married an overbearing gold digger in England and then met his true love. Parts of Crippen’s wife’s body were found buried in his basement and he fled with his mistress by boat to Canada. He was captured due to a trans-Atlantic wireless transmission and was tried and hanged in England. The key connector between these two men comes from the critical use of Marconi’s technology in the pursuit of our murderer on the lam.
In the Garden of the Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin tells the story of Hitler’s consolidation of power in his first year as chancellor of Germany. William E. Dodd was the seventh or eighth choice of candidates FDR proposed for the post of US ambassador to Berlin in 1933. Dodd, in his 64 years, had been a professor of history at the University of Chicago and amateur farmer, and was known for his impeachable integrity and forthrightness, traits that would distance him from the courts of diplomacy. Daughter Martha was 24 years old and estranged from her banker husband. Initially seduced by the resurgence of Germany’s vitality and intellectual and political pursuits, Martha was involved with Rudolph Diels, the first commander of the Gestapo and other Nazi officials who even tried to fix her up with Hitler. Drawing on the diaries of father and daughter, Larson creates what it was like to live in Berlin: to shop, lunch, attend galas and absorb news of Hitler’s maniacal hatred for the Jews and his terrorizing of all who questioned his absolute power.
Larson’s body of work makes for fascinating reading, so don’t hesitate to check out these great books for yourself.