Erik Larson first came to my attention with his brilliant book, The Devil in the White City, which I reviewed here. It was a fascinating account of the Chicago World’s Fair, intercut with one of America’s most villainous serial killers, who lived just a few blocks away, known in the annals of history as H.H. Holmes.
His latest work, Dead Wake, Larson takes us to the year 1915, as the luxurious ocean Lusitania makes its ill-fated journey to England. Time spent aboard ship, recounted from personal memoirs and letters, is intercut with establishing the world at the time, the German war machine, the British intelligence hard at work on tracking the U-boats that prowled the oceans, and the one, U-20, that fired that fateful torpedo.
We spend time with Captain William Turner, as he guides the Lusitania from the docks of New York, where some last-minute additions, and visitors put them a little behind schedule. There are notes, and moments with a variety of crew and passengers, putting a very human face on them, and making their fate, and the moments we spend sinking with the ship all the more horrifying.
There is an examination of the larger world at work, President Wilson’s personal life, how he didn’t want the United States to be drawn into the war, but knew at some point, they would have to respond if Americans perished. Churchill’s work at the Admiralty, the fact that a series of code-breakers had already broken the German communications, and knew where most of the submarines were, and the fact that somehow the Lusitania wasn’t assigned protection, given an alternate route when submarines were reported in the area, and Churchill’s actions after Lusitania went down.
We also climb aboard U-20 with Kapitanleutnant Walther Schweiger, learning of the man through his log entries. We find out that the German High Command rated success on submarine missions based on tonnage sunk, and how once they were out of wireless contact, the captain was the last word on everything.
Larson crafts the history into a compulsive read, and I can’t believe I needed to be reminded of how well he tells a tale. I’m going to have to go out and pick up his other books shortly, I think. The way he follows the Lusitania from leaving her berth to her last moments, is amazing, and the fact that he puts it in context of everything else that was going on in the world while maintaining the all important human side of the tale is a wonderfully done balancing act.
And I will say this, after having spent time with ship, crew and passengers in the first part of the book, when that torpedo fires, and the ship starts to go down (in an incredibly short 18 minutes), it is truly horrifying. I was stunned. (In all honesty, I had to stop reading a couple of times on my way to work that morning when I hit that sequence, because it just about wrecked me).
Larson has wowed me on two occasions now, I really do need to read his other books. And you can do yourself a favor and pick this one up! It’s amazing!!