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Sunday, March 27, 2016

'The Midnight Watch' by David Dyer


From the BLURB:

David Dyer's astonishing novel The Midnight Watch is based on the true story of the SS Californian, the ship that saw the Titanic's distress rockets and yet, unfathomably, did nothing. A psychological thriller.

Sometimes the smallest of human failings can lead to the greatest of disasters.

As the Titanic was sinking slowly in the wretchedly cold North Atlantic, she could see the lights of another ship on the horizon. She called for help by Morse lamp and the new Marconi telegraph machine, but there was no response. Just after midnight the Titanic began firing distress rockets.

The other ship, the Californian, saw these rockets but didn't come. Why not?

When the story of the disaster begins to emerge, it's a question that Boston American reporter John Steadman cannot let go. As soon as he lays eyes on the Californian's captain and second officer, he knows a story lurks behind their version of events. So begins his strange journey towards the truth. Haunted by the fifteen hundred who went to their deaths in those icy waters, and by the loss of his own baby son years earlier, Steadman must either find redemption in the Titanic's tragedy or lose himself.

Based on true events, The Midnight Watch is at once a heart-stopping mystery and a deeply knowing novel – about the frailty of men, the strength of women, the capriciousness of fate and the price of loyalty.

‘The Midnight Watch’ is Australian author David Dyer’s debut novel; a fictionalised account of the true story of the Titanic and the Californian.

I’m going to hazard a guess that not many people know that the sinking of the Titanic – which claimed some 1500 lives – could have been prevented in more ways than one. But at the rescue-level, there was the fact that Titanic was carrying only 20 lifeboats when the ship could have taken 60 or so, or that some of those lifeboats carried a measly twelve passengers when they were tested to take 70 men. But the greatest injustice atop so many has to be that a ship called the SS Californian was closest in location to the RMS Titanic, and even saw distress rockets – and yet did nothing for six hours as she sunk and lives were lost. David Dyer’s ‘The Midnight Watch’ is a fictionalised account of what happened aboard the Californian that she became a ‘ship of shame,’ alternately following the story of Californian’s Second Officer Herbert Stone who informed his captain of the rockets being shot by an unknown ship, and more closely by fictional Boston journalist John Steadman, whose job is to bring up the bodies in stories.

Make no mistake; everything about this story – the truth, and what Dyer has fictionalised – is fascinating. Equally fascinating is how Australian author David Dyer presumably got so interested in the legend of the Titanic and lesser-known story of the Californian in the first place – according to his biography, Dyer ‘spent many years as a lawyer at the London legal practice whose parent firm represented the Titanic’s owners in 1912. He has also worked as a cadet and ship’s officer on a wide range of merchant vessels, having graduated with distinction from the Australian Maritime College.’ So it should come as no surprise that ‘The Midnight Watch’ feels meticulously researched – and there is evidence aplenty of Dyer’s legal and naval mind working to flesh out what has sunk into somewhat hollow legend with the passing of time.

Perhaps Dyer’s best plot-device was to tell the bulk of this tale through the eyes of reporter John Steadman – a grizzled, alcoholic anti-hero estranged from his wife years after the death of their baby son for which she still blames him. Steadman is a fictional construct, though the Boston American he writes for really was the first to break the story of the Californian, which saw Titanic’s distress signals, but did not assist. Steadman is this haunted man and throwback to another age of journalism in which reporters wore disguises to get the story, pounding the pavement to get words to the editor in time. The story of the Titanic holds so much fascination even after all these years (and that James Cameron film) – so imagine what a cracker of a story it was at the time; the unsinkable ship sunk on its maiden voyage, and some of America’s richest drowned with it;

Only a few hours earlier, the Carpathia had berthed in New York, watched by forty thousand onlookers. The survivors came ashore in driving rain, and their individual stories – like the tiny flames of candles being lit in a dark cathedral – had begun to illuminate a very great tragedy. Visions flashed upon the consciousness of a nation: first-class men standing on sloping decks in dinner jackets, steerage passengers rushing wildly for the boats, Italians being shot dead by the Titanic’s officers, the mighty Captain Smith, his great white beard spreading around him in the black waters, swimming to a lifeboat with a baby in his arms. There were visions of shame, too: when a passenger was asked how Mr Ismay, chairman of the line, had escaped the doomed ship, the passenger simply shrugged and said, ‘Well, he got into a lifeboat.’
 
It strikes me that The Midnight Watch does read like a mystery – one in which the readers know who the villain is, and are eagerly waiting for the detective (or, in this case, journalist) to put all the clues together and hit on the right piece of evidence and witness that sets him off on a path to find the guilty party. It means that there’s this constant, pervasive, sense of foreshadowing and inevitable gloom that hangs like a thick fog. Readers know what shame some aboard the Californian are grappling with (Herbert Stone in particular) and we’re just waiting for the moment when Steadman’s nose for a good story leads him to the right cracks in conscience.

I think what also elevates this story is that Dyer has managed to hone in on a theme of hubris (of man and machine), chivalry and what it actually means to be a man … These all run undercurrent throughout the book, and indeed the Titanic legend itself. ‘Women and children first,’ is this profound mandate that put women in the lifeboats by virtue of their sex alone, and speaks to this maritime law of men that seems tied to a knight-ish code of chivalry. Indeed, some of the Titanic legends – like the band played on, shipbuilder Thomas Andrews spent his final moments encouraging and herding people onto lifeboats, and that Captain Edward Smith went down with his ship – upholds this story of men doing the right and honourable thing – so much so, that the very idea of ‘honour’ becomes closely linked to manhood.

Dyer takes this examination one step further, when reporter John Steadman settles into investigating the story … his estranged wife, who is a stalwart Suffragette, bemoans the Titanic ‘legend’ that’s already surfacing and suggests all this talk of heroic men is blowback on the women campaigning for the vote. She notes that Suffragettes are being physically attacked in the street since the sinking, have had parades cancelled and the slogan ‘Boats or Votes?’ is being lobbed at them, alluding again to that act of chivalry – women and children first – to which she replies that she would have refused to get into a boat. John Steadman’s Suffragette daughter echoes her mother’s sentiment, claiming she would prefer to make her own way by finding a plank of wood to float on (which I hoped was a beautiful and subtle head-nod to the infamous ‘could Jack have fit on the door?’ Titanic mythbuster conundrum).

I also really appreciated that Dyer orientates the Titanic story in a wider political, international and social context. The aforementioned suffragette movement and its repercussions there, but also how the sinking of the Titanic became a bit of a British/American rivalry … a ship built in Britain, captained by British officers that killed so many American lives – and adding salt to the wound is the fact that the captain of the ‘ship of shame’ Californian was an Englishman too – the very model of a gentleman – a Liverpool man nonetheless. At one point, Steadman muses that the Titanic represented, ‘the great Edwardian hubris of her makers,’ and that line just so beautifully distils the sentiment.

Was my story, then, not one of hubris after all, but dramatic cowardice? I’d been told that Liverpool men were tough, that they had a special sort of courage. Liverpool was, after all, the city from which England sent the ships to build her empire. So was what I had here a very remarkable and unique creature: the Liverpool craven? Had this man left fifteen hundred people to die because he was scared of the dark and cold? If so, how did he go on living? We all commit shameful acts at some time – my life as a drunken journalist had been one long sequence of moral lapses – but this was of a different magnitude altogether. This was worse than Mr Ismay getting into a lifeboat. This would disgrace a nation.
 
There are also allusions to anti-immigration views of the time, when so many newspapers gleefully repeat the story of Italian ‘cravens’ being shot by crewmen, because they were rushing the lifeboats. Or the way Washington felt the ramifications, because American president of the time, William Howard Taft, had his dear friend and aid Archibald Butt perish on the Titanic – it is reported that he was walking round the Whitehouse in tears, asking to be left alone.

While reading the first-half of this book, I struggled with the idea that much as I was enjoying the story its greatest strength could also in many ways be its greatest weakness – and that was a serious lack of female characters. Those who are included did feel quite wooden – the tragic Shirtwaist girls Steadman once reported on, the Titanic women who gained seats on lifeboats, the nameless prostitutes Steadman beds, his dutiful daughter and scornful suffragette wife – none of them held real weight. It was looking as though ‘The Midnight Watch’ wouldn’t pass the literary-equivalent of a Bechdel test … and then a surprising twist at the end puts one particular woman front-and-centre of the Titanic story, and I found myself both heartbroken and buoyed to read her portrayal. That this book examining all the old ideas of what it means to be a strong, honourable man should leave off with a woman commanding the page spoke volumes. And something Steadman ponders early on echoed for me; that maybe this century really would belong to the women.

I loved ‘The Midnight Watch’ and it’s definitely a favourite book of 2016 for me. A story we all seem to know so well is alive in our imaginations once again, but David Dyer’s true strength as a storyteller lies in what he pushes us to examine in the lives of mere men.

5/5 

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