Unresolved mystery of Titanic proportions
Precisely why the story of the Titanic continues to exercise such a powerful hold on the collective imagination is a fascinating question. The answer lies, at least in part, in the way it simultaneously enacts and contradicts a series of fantasies about the passing of the Gilded Age, setting the hubris of the ship’s owners’ claims about its unsinkability against the images of doomed nobility and chivalry that are embodied in the image of the band playing on as the ship slid beneath the waves.
Of course these fantasies obscure a far less comfortable reality, a story of criminal arrogance and hidebound privilege that doomed more than 1500 people, many of them the working poor travelling in steerage, to a watery death. Yet as Australian novelist David Dyer demonstrates in his gripping and assured debut, The Midnight Watch, which explores the disaster and its personal and imaginative aftermath, these two interpretations of the event intersect and overlap often unsettling ways.
Dyer isn’t the first writer to venture into this territory, although as a former ship’s officer and lawyer who spent many years working in the London firm that represented the Titanic’s owners, he may be the most qualified: almost 20 years ago Beryl Bainbridge’s Every Man for Himself deconstructed the Titanic myth in characteristically acerbic fashion. But where Bainbridge’s account concerned itself with events on board the liner, The Midnight Watch approaches the story more tangentially, focusing not on the story of the Titanic, but that of the Californian, the ship that became notorious for failing to provide assistance to the Titanic on the night it sank.
For those unfamiliar with the story, the facts are simple and confounding: late on the evening of April 14, 1912, the Californian encountered a large ice field. Deciding it was not safe to continue, its captain, Stanley Lord, ordered the ship stopped until morning. Shortly after midnight the Californian’s second officer, Herbert Stone, sighted the first of several distress rockets and went below to inform Lord. Despite knowing the Titanic was in the area, Lord did not come to the bridge or direct Stone to render assistance.
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At subsequent inquiries Lord’s explanations for his behaviour were confusing and contradictory, yet at no point did he admit any failure on his part or — more strikingly — express any distress over the fact that if he had acted, hundreds of lives might have been saved.
The first third of The Midnight Watch reconstructs events on board the Californian across that fatal night and its aftermath, moving fluidly between the perspectives of Stone, the Californian’s wireless operator Cyril Evans and several others as the disaster unfolds just out of reach.
Perhaps ironically given the inevitability of the disaster, these opening sections are extremely powerful. As the perspective shifts from one crew member to the next, Dyer builds a fascinating portrait not just of life aboard the ship and its curious dynamics, but of the frailties of the individual officers, and in particular the unfortunate Stone, whose intense loyalty to his captain is tested by his growing comprehension of the cost of Lord’s — and by extension his own — inaction.
Dyer counterpoints this re-creation with another invented narrative focused on the attempts of a journalist, John Steadman, to unpick the mystery of what happened that night, an undertaking driven not just by Stead- man’s awareness that Lord’s story does not add up, but by his determination to provide some kind of memorial for the many ordinary people who died.
Dyer’s portrait of Steadman occasionally feels less well-realised than those of Stone and his fellow crew members, partly because Steadman’s fascination with writing about the dead (his colleagues call him “the Body Man”) feels a little too self-consciously literary, partly because he hews so closely to the cliches about hard-drinking journalists with chaotic personal lives. But as the novel progresses these concerns are subsumed by the larger questions that drive Steadman’s inquiries, and in particular the mystery of Lord’s behaviour.
Whether any explanation for the latter would be truly satisfying is an interesting question: certainly the one Steadman eventually fixes upon is not, or not entirely.
But it is difficult not to suspect this is deliberate, for by allowing Lord to remain essentially inscrutable, his mind “like a pond covered by thick ice”, Dyer shifts the perspective outwards, creating something much richer and more morally complex.
It’s a fascinating decision, and one that in conjunction with the book’s final third — pur-