What is this about?: A journalist’s investigation into why the SS Californian didn’t help the Titanic when she sank.
What else is this about?: This bit of history is more than enough for this book. David Dyer focuses on bringing this time in history to life, along with the effects of the Titanic’s sinking on those involved.
Blurb: As the Titanic and her passengers sank slowly into the Atlantic Ocean after striking an iceberg late in the evening of April 14, 1912, a nearby ship looked on. Second Officer Herbert Stone, in charge of the midnight watch on the SS Californian sitting idly a few miles north, saw the distress rockets that the Titanic fired. He alerted the captain, Stanley Lord, who was sleeping in the chartroom below, but Lord did not come to the bridge. Eight rockets were fired during the dark hours of the midnight watch, and eight rockets were ignored. The next morning, the Titanic was at the bottom of the sea and more than 1,500 people were dead. When they learned of the extent of the tragedy, Lord and Stone did everything they could to hide their role in the disaster, but pursued by newspapermen, lawyers, and political leaders in America and England, their terrible secret was eventually revealed. The Midnight Watch is a fictional telling of what may have occurred that night on the SS Californian, and the resulting desperation of Officer Stone and Captain Lord in the aftermath of their inaction.
Told not only from the perspective of the SS Californian crew, but also through the eyes of a family of third-class passengers who perished in the disaster, the narrative is drawn together by Steadman, a tenacious Boston journalist who does not rest until the truth is found. The Midnight Watch is a powerful and dramatic debut novel–the result of many years of research in Liverpool, London, New York, and Boston, and informed by the author’s own experiences as a ship’s officer and a lawyer.
Based on true events, The Midnight Watch is the story of Steadman, journalist, who writes about bodies – bringing the dead to life for his paper’s readers. There is no one better, and this talent is fuelled in part by his own loss of his young son and the end of his marriage as a result. I guess, this is also about Steadman, about a man so bereft after his son’s death, he can only write about the dead.
So, when the Titanic sinks he sets off to find the bodies, ready to tell their story when he finds a better story altogether: why did Captain Lord of the Californian ignore the distress rockets from the Titanic? Slowly, he begins to peel back the lies in the Captain’s story, and the truth to Officer Stone’s.
There are no big reveals or anything like that here, but instead a steady plot and pacing as Steadman weaves his way from the States to London, trying to understand the Captain’s decisions. There are lies as some of the ship’s crew tries to protect the Captain, while others sell their story because it’s the only way the truth will get out, and once it does, their lives are over – who will hire a disloyal sailor? And all the while, Steadman is trying to stay one step ahead of his journalistic competition – this book relies on the atmosphere, the time and history to bring its story to life – and to tell the truth of the people who perished in the Titanic as best it can.
In the end, the truth of the SS Californian’s decision not to come to the Titanic’s aid is so simple and heartbreaking, it left me winded. I expected many things, but not that ending.
But that’s the power of this book – in the simpler things in today’s twist-focused publishing world: character, atmosphere and quiet moments that make you go: Oh.