As the Titanic and her passengers sank slowly into the Atlantic Ocean after striking an iceberg late in the evening of April 14, 1912, a nearby ship looked on. Second Officer Herbert Stone, in charge of the midnight watch on the SS Californian sitting idly a few miles north, saw the distress rockets that the Titanic fired. He alerted the captain, Stanley Lord, who was sleeping in the chartroom below, but Lord did not come to the bridge. Eight rockets were fired during the dark hours of the midnight watch, and eight rockets were ignored. The next morning, the Titanic was at the bottom of the sea and more than 1,500 people were dead. When they learned of the extent of the tragedy, Lord and Stone did everything they could to hide their role in the disaster, but pursued by newspapermen, lawyers, and political leaders in America and England, their terrible secret was eventually revealed. The Midnight Watch is a fictional telling of what may have occurred that night on the SS Californian, and the resulting desperation of Officer Stone and Captain Lord in the aftermath of their inaction.
Told not only from the perspective of the SS Californian crew, but also through the eyes of a family of third-class passengers who perished in the disaster, the narrative is drawn together by Steadman, a tenacious Boston journalist who does not rest until the truth is found. The Midnight Watch is a powerful and dramatic debut novel–the result of many years of research in Liverpool, London, New York, and Boston, and informed by the author’s own experiences as a ship’s officer and a lawyer.
The Midnight Watch is a strong debut novel built on meticulous research of the historical records. Prior to reading this book, I’d never even heard of the Californian, but a quick Google search shows just how real this nightmare story is. The Californian was nearby at the time that the Titanic was sinking, close enough to potentially have been able to save most or even all of those lost in the tragedy, and yet the ship did nothing in response to the Titanic’s distress signals.
The author does a painstaking job of recreating the events of that terrible night. In alternating chapters, we see events unfold through the eyes of the men onboard the Californian, especially Herbert Stone, and then learn of the Titanic and the possible involvement of the Californian through the perspective of John Steadman, a journalist who specializes in giving voice to those who’ve died in tragic circumstances.
It’s shocking to read that the officer of the watch saw the rockets, understood them to be distress signals, and then contacted the captain, only to do nothing once his captain chose to do nothing. The subsequent sets of lies and cover-ups and self-deceptions are equally disturbing and confusing. Why didn’t the Californian respond? How could Captain Lord live with himself afterward? Why didn’t the second officer do more if he truly believed he was witnessing a ship that needed help?
While The Midnight Watch lays out the events and presents a fictionalized accounting of what may have been going through the minds of the men involved, of course we’ll never actually know the truth or why this terrible inaction transpired while people were dying nearby.
The book is well-written and the character of John Steadman is appealingly flawed — a man who pursues the truth, even while drinking himself into oblivion and at the risk of his job. Captain Lord remains a haughty enigma. It’s impossible to truly understand his role in the Titanic’s sinking, but the portrayal of him here is certainly unflattering.
The piece of The Midnight Watch that carries the greatest emotional power comes toward the end, as the book includes the (fictional) account written by Steadman, called “Eight White Rockets”. Steadman’s piece describes events on the Californian that night, intercut with his recreation of the final hours spent on board the Titanic by a family of eleven — a mother, father, and their nine children — who all perished in the sinking. (This family, the Sage family, were real people who died in the disaster; the author has imagined what their experience might have been and why none survived.)
So many years later, the tragedy of the Titanic continues to fascinate us. The Midnight Watch describes a less well-known aspect of that terrible event, bringing to light facts and people that most with a casual interest in the Titanic today are probably unfamiliar with. The Midnight Watch blends historical details with a fictional story of journalistic research to create a compelling and moving tale. If you enjoy historical fiction and want to know more about the Titanic disaster, be sure to check this book out.
Title: The Midnight Watch
Author: David Dyer
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: April 5, 2016
Length: 323 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley