Few tales in history are more haunting, more tangled with investigatory mazes or more fraught with toxic secrets than that of the final voyage of the Lusitania, one of the colossal tragedies of maritime history. It’s the other Titanic, the story of a mighty ship sunk not by the grandeur of nature but by the grimness of man.
On May 7, 1915, the four-funneled, 787-foot Cunard superliner, on a run from New York to Liverpool, England, encountered a German submarine, the U-20, about 11 miles off the coast of Ireland. The U-boat’s captain, Walther Schwieger, was pleased to discover that the passenger steamer had no naval escort. Following his government’s new policy of unrestricted warfare, Schwieger fired a single torpedo into her hull. Less than half a minute later, a second explosion shuddered from somewhere deep within the bowels of the vessel, and she listed precariously to starboard.
The Lusitania sank in just 18 minutes. Nearly 1,200 people, including 128 Americans, died with it. The casualties included millionaire Alfred Vanderbilt, Broadway impresario Charles Frohman and noted art collector Hugh Lane, who was thought to be carrying sealed lead tubes containing paintings by Rembrandt and Monet.
The world was outraged to learn that the war had taken this diabolic new turn, that an ocean liner full of innocent civilians was now considered fair game. The sinking turned American opinion against the Germans — demonstrating, for some, the incorrigible treachery of the “Pirate Huns” — and became a rallying cry when America finally entered the war in 1917.
But in the years that followed, unsettling questions clung to the Lusitania case, contributing to a persistent hunch that the ship had somehow been allowed to sail into a trap. (Or, at least, that important aspects of the story had been assiduously covered up.)
Why had the British Admiralty failed to provide a military escort? What was the cause of that catastrophic second explosion? And what about Winston Churchill, then first lord of the Admiralty, who conveniently left Britain for France just days before the sinking? What did Churchill know, and when did he know it?
Erik Larson is one of the modern masters of popular narrative nonfiction. In book after book, he has proved to be both a resourceful reporter and a subtle stylist who understands the tricky art of Edward Scissorhands-ing multiple narrative strands into a pleasing story. Few nonfiction books have employed this technique better than his best-seller “The Devil in the White City,” a horrifying account of a serial killer lurking at the edges of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.
Maybe it’s a perverse thing to admit, but for much of the book I found myself rooting for the German submariners, sympathizing with their loneliness and claustrophobia, their mad dives and other maneuvers as they groped through the murk, the perils squeezing in from all sides. The U-boat stank like a sty. There was, Larson says, the “basal reek of three dozen men who never bathed, wore leather clothes that did not breathe, and shared one small lavatory. The toilet from time to time imparted to the boat the scent of a cholera hospital and could be flushed only when the U-boat was on the surface or at shallow depths, lest the undersea pressure blow material back into the vessel.”
Larson’s passages concerning those aboard the Lusitania, however, are less engaging. In places he seems bored by this steamship and its Edwardian-era passengers. We are treated to the familiar lists of clothes and personal effects and obligatory discussions of hat styles. As the Lusitania makes its final Atlantic crossing, Larson’s language grows slack. “The usual shipboard tedium began to set in,” he writes. There were “books, and cigars, and fine foods, afternoon tea.… Now and then a ship appeared in the distance.” Passengers “drank and smoked. Both; a lot.”
Larson paints a nuanced and empathetic portrait of the Lusitania’s captain, William Thomas Turner, but he seldom lingers long enough with any of his other characters to establish a lasting connection. When the torpedo strikes, the reader has little sense of suspense and little concern for who will live and who will die. To be sure, in the final moments before the impact, there are masterly Larsonian touches — the staccato crosscutting, the crisp zeitgeisty vignettes, the interweaving of chills and thrills. But after the torpedo blast, the narrative rarely gains emotional traction again. I could see the disaster unfolding. But I couldn’t feel it.
To his credit, Larson refuses to descend into the many rabbit holes of conspiracy and esoteric forensics that could have bogged down his story. But he seems curiously incurious about the second explosion, which remains the single greatest mystery of the Lusitania’s rapid sinking. In a brief wrap-up, he devotes less than a full page to the question, then brusquely declares, on the basis of scant evidence, that it was caused by a rupture of the Lusitania’s main steam line.
If “Dead Wake” is not (by Larson’s standards) a great book, it is an entertaining book about a great subject. A century later, the Lusitania remains a daunting subject just as it remains a daunting shipwreck — a dark realm, full of secrets and lost souls.
Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, by Erik Larson (448 pages; $28; Crown)