David Dyer’s dissipated newspaper correspondent, John Steadman, defines Philip Franklin, Vice President of J P Morgan’s International Mercantile Marine, which owned the Titanic, by one word – “fear” – when the missing ship’s fate is uncertain and by the word “courage” when its fate is known. The word for The Midnight Watch is “gripping”.
Although Steadman is fictional, Franklin is not. The real people from this infamous event – the failure of the SS Californian to come to come to the aid of the sinking Titanic – are effectively imagined by Dyer. None are superfluous. Franklin, a good and caring man, sobs when he has to deliver the news that the unsinkable has sunk. Herbert Stone, as second officer on the Californian stood the midnight watch (the time when the spirits of the drowned arise from the sea) and saw the Titanic’s distress flares. Inscrutable Captain Lord (“I’m Lord – Lord of the Californian”) never does give a straight answer when asked why he ignored the eight – eight! – distress flares. Stone identifies with Melville’s Starbuck. His desperate struggle to stay loyal to his flawed captain but not go down with the 50,000 ton whale are affecting .
As the result of an untimely death in his past (vividly limned by Dyer in almost surreal, terse images), Steadman is a ‘body’ man for the Boston American. “‘If there are bodies, call Steadman”. He writes sentimental pieces about the dead – the girls who died in the New York Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire of 1911 , the victims of the sinking of the Republic in 1909. He writes about “the intimate and the domestic, the downtrodden and the destitute, the liars and hypocrites“. He works to give the dead a voice and return them to the world of the living. Steadman sees a really good, unique opportunity in the story of the poor victims of the Titanic, the steerage passengers. Understandably, then, he is disappointed when he reads an early report that none died in the Titanic collision: “What a shame, I thought, before I could stop myself”.
David Dyer, who, as a former lawyer and merchant vessels’ officer knows his stuff, splices the real and the fictional almost seamlessly in this novel about the Californian, the British steamer which was closest to the Titanic when she sank but inexplicably failed to come to her rescue. The Californian arrived at the Titanic’s last position some 6 hours after the doomed ship’s flares were seen, long after the first ship on the scene, the Carpathia. The account of that night in the North Atlantic and the awful days following in New York are the strongest passages of this book.
Other characters based on real persons are accurately realised. Some of the most suspenseful sections are those when Cyril Evans, the 20 year old Marconi wireless man listens to the ships’ messages as news comes in and he is repeatedly told to stay off the air. Jealous of his precedence on the night and desperate for recognition, his evidence is vital. The newly promoted donkeyman Ernie Gills just resents everyone and wants to get even with them all.
The dialogue is real and the prose strong. Here, the Californian has arrived where the Titanic should be and is informed by semaphore signals from the Carpathia that she has foundered. Captain Lord and Second Officer Stone stand on the open bridge and await news of the number of dead:-
“There was a pause. Stone looked at the signalling officer on the Carpathia through his binoculars. He was holding both flags straight up, the left at a slight angle, indicating that he was about to signal numbers. Stone knew they would be his numbers – his and his captain’s. Captain Lord was, he knew, like him, waiting for them. Once they came they would be theirs forever.
The sun grew smaller and more intense as it climbed the sky. It poured such a torrent of white light onto the bridge that it seemed to wash colour from things. There was no subtlety of shading, the scene appeared to Stone at a uniform saturation, like an overexposed photograph. Even the black pitch between the planks at Stone’s feet glistened as if wet with light. Under the black rim of his cap, Captain Lord was squinting. Stone thought of Moby-Dick. ‘Oh, my Captain! my Captain!’ he said to himself. ‘Away with me! Let us fly these deadly waters!”
This is reminiscent also, of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
Stone wanders Boston in the aftermath;
“He took his bundle of papers to the Boston library, where he sifted through them until his fingers were black with newsprint. The Titanic survivors had come ashore in New York and every one of them had a story to tell. Above him soared the reading rooms’ great barrel-arched ceiling and twin domes, and although they were filled with light, when he looked up at them he saw again the vast black vault of the sky on the night of the rockets. And he began to hear the pitiful cries of human beings in the black water, flying upward to a cold and icy heaven, so loud and so many that it seemed the ocean itself was dying”
Class and nationality are important to the story. Dyer notes that the Americans blamed British arrogance and pride for the loss of life of so many Americans, including some very rich and influential Americans. “It was a British ship with a British captain and a British head of the line who had somehow found his way into a lifeboat.”
Those sections of the book which deal with Steadman’s investigations and the official enquiries are inevitably less absorbing. Although we do want to know why Captain Lord did not come to the Titanic’s rescue as he was bound to do, the ship has gone and with it the tension.
Steadman’s interactions with his suffragette wife and daughter, do feel somewhat tacked on for atmosphere. There are clichés, such as the irate, bulging-eyed city editor and the Colombo-like “just one more question”. Steadman gains access to people and places in unlikely manners. But these are quibbles. Dyer’s first novel is very good indeed.. Read it if you are at all interested in shipping, the Titanic, personal responsibility, journalism, Melville, Coleridge or reading.
And I thank Dyer for giving me the name of my future rock band; Major Butt and the Cravens.