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Review: The Midnight Watch by David Dyer

on April 6, 2016

The Midnight WatchThe Midnight Watch: A Novel of The Titanic and The Californian
David Dyer
St Martin’s Press
2016, 336p
Copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

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.

I’d been hearing about this book and seeing it around lately so I was very pleased to be able to score the opportunity to read it. Everyone knows the story of the Titanic – the ship that was supposed to be unsinkable, which hit an iceberg and then proceeded to sink rapidly on its maiden voyage. There were a number of problems – the ship was not carrying anywhere near enough lifeboats for the passengers and the number of crew, families were separated due to the women and children first rule. The Titanic had a number of very high profile passengers on board, some of the cream of society as well as people from all walks of life looking to make a change or take a holiday. Only 705 survivors of the ship’s 2200+ passengers and crew were rescued by the arriving RMS Carpathia, after the Titanic sank.

What I never knew until this book was that there was another ship in the vicinity when the Titanic struck the iceberg – the SS Californian. I don’t know how I’ve never heard of this before but the SS Californian was some 20-30 miles away from the Titanic when she sank and several crew members aboard saw the flares the Titanic were sending. White flares, which mean one thing only – a ship in distress. However despite the fact that the captain of the California was informed of the flares and of the strange angle of the ship in the water, he chose not to go to the ship’s aid and investigate what was happening. He told the crew to attempt to contact via Morse and when contact could not be established, seemed to believe the ship was signalling in some other way or putting on a show for the passengers despite the fact that the flares were emphatically not coloured and that they were “all white”, the colour fired when a vessel is in distress.

There’s something horrific about the idea of that, let alone the fact that it’s truth. The fact that another ship was within easy distance of the Titanic, spotted not only her flares but the uneasy way she was sitting in the water and then the fact that she vanished entirely. If the captain had gone to her aid immediately it’s likely that they could’ve saved a large number of people, probably not all but many, many more than did survive. The Midnight Watch is a fictional retelling of the story of the SS Californian and an examination of just why the ship’s captain chose not to take the warnings of the flares seriously from his officer on the midnight watch and declined to investigate further. There are many things he could’ve done – arranged to have woken the ship’s communication officer to attempt to establish contact with the ship would’ve been a good first option but given that white flares mean an SOS call, every captain that sees them should respond immediately. It’s possible that because the Californian had already struck ice earlier that night (and had in fact attempted to warn the ships in the area, including the Titanic about it which led to a sharp dismissal from the Titanic’s communications officer) that the captain was reluctant to put the ship on a course that he believed might endanger them. However, in all of the excuses and half truths and outright lies, he didn’t really mention that as a strong reason. He seemed to stick to the belief that he believed it was a much smaller ship and that the flares were either celebratory or an attempt at company signalling, despite the fact that they were white, perhaps the most important fact.

This book uses the viewpoint of a journalist who specialises in bringing life to the victims of tragedy to tell its tale and the way in which he chooses to tell it ends up being utterly remarkable. It really highlights the unevenness of the survivors – a large portion of the women and children in first and second class survived, whereas a very high number of the women and children in the third class perished. There was also a high percentage of men who perished, many from the lower classes on the ships because they were herded down when the ship began to sink, not up towards the decks. It shone a light on the lack of equality as well as the lack or organisation and order. Lifeboats were loaded with room still left in them, people (men) being shot for trying to secure a position on a boat. Dyer was able to weave in the suffragettes and feminist movement as women pushed for the vote as well using a heavily flawed character of a journalist known for ‘chasing the bodies’ when something terrible happens.

This book was fabulous – it took a fascinating and devastating event with some little known facts and built a story out of it with characters that feel frighteningly real. Scary (in a good way), thoroughly researched, very well written and the sort of book that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to just about everyone.

8/10

Book #60 of 2016

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One response to “Review: The Midnight Watch by David Dyer

  1. This has become one of our staff favourites 🙂

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