Erik Larson’s Latest Is a Gripping Tale of a Sinking Luxury Ship Not Named Titanic

Larson's description of the torpedoing of the Lusitania churns like an angry sea, full of detail gleaned from memoirs and letters of survivors and rescuers.

Imagine you are a 25-year-old woman traveling with your brother-in-law on the fastest, most luxurious ocean liner of its day — and you are bored. It’s 1915. Having boarded the giant “greyhound” of a ship in New York, your destination is Liverpool, England. In an offhand way at lunch one day you remark: “I can’t help hoping that we get some sort of thrill going up the Channel.”

Now imagine you are Walther Schwieger, the ruthless 25-year-old captain of a German submarine, U-20, off the coast of England out of communication range with your superiors, and you have orders to attack any likely enemy ship in the waters off Liverpool. Your high command believes that the British are planning an invasion of Germany across the North Sea. You have to be careful with your resources since you carried a total of only six torpedoes.

Collision course? Of course. The result was the sinking of the mammoth British passenger cruiser Lusitania, a signal moment in World War I. Erik Larson describes this catastrophe involving the luxury liner and the U-boat in alternating chapters with assurance and verve. A reader can’t help but think of the Titanic, which had been sunk by an iceberg only three years earlier.

The Cunard Lines’ Lusitania, the only passenger ship in the world to have four smokestacks, traveled at a top speed of 26 knots (30 miles an hour). Despite the war in Europe, folks clamored to get on board – on this crossing from New York it carried nearly 2,000 people, including 1,265 passengers. A large number of those passengers were children and infants.

They were sailing “at their own risk”. On the very morning the Lusitania was to leave New York, Germany sent an unmistakable warning in an ad in shipping news section of New York newspapers. Vessels flying the flag “of Great Britain or her allies” were “liable to destruction.” The nearly 200 Americans on board nevertheless felt they were safe. The United States had not yet entered the war and the captain told them they would get a destroyer escort once they reached the danger zone near Liverpool. Besides, passenger ships typically were not subjected to bombardment.

Larson showed he was a master of the non-fiction thriller with The Devil in the White City, his 2003 best-seller about a serial killer and the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. I, for one, knew little about that period or its people. That book was as riveting as any fiction thriller I ever read.

With Dead Wake, we know the outcome, yet Larson has no difficulty building suspense by fleshing out the leading characters such as the Lusitania’s captain, William Thomas Turner, and featured players like bored Dorothy Connors. He frames them in the larger picture of the war, of Britain’s ambitious First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, and the American president Woodrow Wilson, whose despondent mood after the death of his first wife was brightening as he wooed Edith Galt. (She eventually became the new first lady.)

It’s amazing how serene Captain Turner seemed as the ship was about to begin its voyage. Chatting with American heir Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, he was interrupted by a reporter who asked if the ship could be caught by a submarine. Turner replied “Why it’s the best joke I’ve heard in many days, this talk of torpedoing the Lusitania.” Vanderbilt was a member of the “Just Missed It” club: those who were supposed to be on the Titanic but had changed their minds.

There are vignettes of days on the “Lucy”, as she was called, with children playing jump rope on deck, adults playing cards, families dining on dinners fit for royalty – all attended to by a battalion of crew members. Maybe Larson and the rest of us have heard too much about the glamour of the Titanic; his description of the lovingly crafted wood ornamentation and the elevator, lounges, dining rooms and cabins of the Lusitania fail to overcome the sense of the tedium travelers felt without a casino, movie theater, climbing wall or water slide.

“Passengers drank and smoked. Both; a lot,” writes Larson. The crew conducted lifeboat drills for the sailors but not for the passengers. There were no drills, either, in how to don the new-style life jacket.

In the North Sea, by contrast, the U-boat was cramped, dangerous and smelly. Sailors lived for the day the sub could surface and they could breathe fresh air. The “most unpleasant aspect of U-boat life,” writes Larson, was “the basal reek of three dozen men who never bathed, wore leather clothes that did not breathe,” and used only a single toilet that could pervade the sub with “the scent of a cholera hospital.”

Underwater the boats could be punctured easily, and crew members acted as ballast – they had to scamper up and back to change positions during a dive or once a heavy torpedo was launched. Despite the hard conditions, hampered by fog, in the gloom of the waters between England and continental Europe, the U-20 was doing its best to find targets.

Under ordinary conditions a speedy ship like the Lusitania could outrun any U-boat. This crossing, however, was unusually slow. To save fuel, Turner had been ordered to sideline one boiler room (and thus one of the four funnels).

Larson sounds sinister notes early: the British had a secret weapon: Room 40, a war room where agents secretly intercepted and decoded wireless messages that pinpointed German submarine positions for as long as they were within transmitting distance of their home receivers. But they were not forwarded to Turner. Churchill himself dared to express the hope for more neutral ship traffic that would get in “trouble”, thus “embroiling the United States with Germany”, and joining the war.

Larson’s narrative is at its best when the silent sub dives down, then emerges for a periscope peek around. After frustrating misses, Schwieger spotted the huge hulk of a cruiser, unprotected and vulnerable. It was close to the Irish shore.

At lunch, an Englishman was waiting for a spoon to eat his ice cream. “He looked ruefully at it and said he would hate to have a torpedo get him before he ate it,” according to another passenger’s recollection.

When the U-20’s torpedo thudded into the hull, everything happened remarkably fast. The Lusitania sank in a mere 18 minutes. Some passengers managed to load up lifeboats but too many did not fetch their life jackets in time or worse — they put them on wrong and were drowned suspended upside down in the water.

Larson’s description of the actual event churns like an angry sea, full of detail gleaned from memoirs and letters of the survivors and the rescuers. The latter were not British warships or cruisers, which were forbidden to conduct rescue missions for fear they, too, would be torpedoed, but by smaller craft that took hours to reach the wretched lifeboat flotilla. Nearly 1,200 people were lost, including Vanderbilt and 127 other Americans.

Dorothy Conner certainly got her thrill. She survived and joined the war effort in France. Captain Turner, who remained on board as the ship sank, was among those rescued and at first was heaped with blame.

The disaster was not enough to bring the United States into the war immediately. Wilson, the book suggests, was distracted by his romance. It cites a famous blunder in a Wilson speech several days after the disaster, when he used the unfortunate phrase “too proud to fight”.

Larson’s threading of each strand of the catastrophe exactly a century ago is masterly, yet calm. At times I felt Larson’s writing is almost too calm, and he gives short shrift to some individuals like Vanderbilt who, in some accounts, helped others into lifeboats and gave away his life jacket even though he could not swim.

Maybe I unrealistically expected that following The Devil in the White City, Larson would give us a masterpiece with every succeeding book. His 2011 title, In the Garden of the Beasts, disappointed me. Dead Wake fares much better. It may not equal The Devil in the White City‘s dazzle, but it still makes quite a splash.

RATING 8 / 10