If you were looking for the ideal person to write a novel about the sinking of the Titanic and the failure of the closest ship in the area that night, The Californian, to come to its aid, who might that person be?
It would be good if that person were passionate, even obsessed by the subject. It would be very helpful if that person knew a lot about navigation, and—given the scope of the tragedy and the inquiries that were held in its wake— if the person were versed in maritime law (well why not? We’re looking for the ideal candidate after all). You’d certainly want the writer to have the necessary doggedness for the detailed research required and, most of all, you’d want them to be a terrific storyteller.
Well, Australian teacher and writer David Dyer fits the bill. In fact, he checks every box. On his fun and information-rich website, I learned of the author’s fascination with the Titanic from childhood. I found out that in his twenties, he trained as a ship’s officer at the Australian Maritime College and was:
“[…] one of the last year groups to learn to navigate by sextant, compass and nautical tables (no GPS back then!), and I sailed the world’s oceans on a wide range of merchant ships, some of which were much larger than the Titanic.”
I was stunned to read that following that, he obtained his law degree, moved to London and worked as a maritime lawyer at Hill Taylor Dickinson, a legal practice whose parent firm represented the Titanic’s owners back in 1912.
And then, to top things off, as part of his Doctorate in Creative Arts at the University of Technology, Sydney, he was granted a Commonwealth Government scholarship to write a book about the Californian incident.
And it shows in The Midnight Watch. Because the depth of knowledge behind Dyer’s talented pen enriches the story and grounds it, creating a true sense of time and place and of all that was at stake before and in the aftermath of the great ship’s descent to the bottom of the North Atlantic.
I thought I knew the Titanic’s story well, and yet I don’t remember hearing of the Californian and its missed appointment with destiny. I only remember the Carpathia’s valiant charge to the site of the lost ship in the dark early hours of the morning of April 15th 1912 to collect the sparse survivors.
But the Californian was there that night, within sight of the ship—probably less than 20 miles—and could have responded to the very first of the eight distress signals (white rockets) that the desperate crew of the sinking Titanic sent up into the perfectly clear sky that night. Had the Californian headed to the site, hundreds and perhaps a thousand or more lives might have been saved.
Charles Groves, the Californian’s Third officer, saw the first distress rocket during his watch. Ernest Gill, the ship’s assistant engineer, saw some too. And finally, Herbert Stone, the Second officer who stood the ill-fated midnight watch that night (between midnight and 4 AM) saw eight of them, and notified his commander, Captain Stanley Lord.
All of this has been officially noted since 1912, when two inquiries into the sinking—the first begun in New York and then moved to Washington D.C. and the second held in London, England—consigned all of the known facts to the public record. Nothing discovered about the members of the ship’s crew and command indicates that these were anything other than decent, honest, hardworking mariners.
And yet, Captain Stanley Lord, a young—he was only 34—but experienced and very well respected seaman, heard Second Officer Stone’s report of the sighting of a ship and of distress signals and chose to do nothing. The next morning, the Californian’s crew learned that they had left fifteen hundred people to drown or freeze to death in the dark Atlantic.
This is the mystery at the heart of The Midnight Watch that has troubled David Dyer for years, and he walks through his story in the guise of his alter-ego, reporter John Steadman of the Boston American. While Steadman is a fictional character, the paper he works for did exist and covered the Titanic’s sinking with rabid enthusiasm.
As he catches the scent of the Californian crew’s apparent dereliction of duty, Steadman becomes single-minded in his determination to get to the bottom of it, and the author sends him to all of the places he himself visited in his quest for answers including libraries, historical sites and archives in Liverpool, Boston and New York, travelling by merchant ship.
Steadman is a hard-drinking, witty, flawed, canny, unimpeachably decent and deep-feeling character, and the novel alternates between the relative neutrality of third person narration and Steadman’s first person account of his quest for answers. It’s a structure that works beautifully.
The Night Watch is an immersion into the distinctive cultures of port cities like Boston, New York and Liverpool, all shipping hubs employing thousands and thriving at the turn of the last century.
It allows us insight into the discipline of merchant sailing: the chain of command, loyalty, the solidarity of the crew, the sense of duty and the moral superiority of seamen trained in sail before steam.*
[* early in the novel, Captain Lord asks Herbert Stone whether he trained in sail or steam—the recent technological advancement—and when Stone says “Steam”, his captain responds: “I thought so—steam makes men soft.”]
It brings to life the fiercely competitive publishing world of Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst; the pulsing beat of cutthroat journalism and news cycles reliant on telegraph technology.
It’s almost a wonder then, that with so much to impart to his readers, David Dyer and with him, John Steadman, never lose track of the soul of the story, which is of course the people, rich and poor; their slow movement across the dangerous sea from Europe to North America and back, and the hope inspiring emigrants—entire families—to leave everything behind.
Near the end of his mission to find answers, after having confronted Captain Lord and his wife one last time, Steadman reflects:
“But it did not take me long, as I stood face to face with Mrs Lord, to remind myself of the real reason why I’d done what I had. It wasn’t for my career, or my newspaper, or Herbert Stone—or even for the truth. It was in the service of those who died. Lord should have gone to them, and even the most loyal and determined of defences from his wife could not change that single fact. In all this dreadful business, it was the one moral absolute.”
David talks about his book: https://twitter.com/BreakfastNews/status/720031705751375874