The Midnight Watch | David Dyer | 2016 (7 April) | Atlantic | 323p | Review copy | Buy the book
In the early hours of 15 April 1912 the unsinkable Titanic sank, a tragedy that the rest of the world was barely able to comprehend, particularly the United States and Great Britain, countries that bore a heavy load of its hundreds of lost souls. Telegraph communications from the Titanic and other vessels meant that journalists were ready and waiting in New York to greet the survivors to hear directly the story of the century. But efforts to contact the Titanic after 2am or thereabouts were met with silence. The unthinkable had happened. But even worse news was to follow. While the Carpathian risked ship and crew to pound through the ice to rescue the Titanic’s lifeboats, it had been too far away to rescue the hundreds floundering in the freezing water. But this shouldn’t have mattered. Another vessel from Britain, the Californian, had been within sight of the Titanic. It had seen its flares rocket into the sky, while in turn, survivors attested, the Californian had been spotted from the sinking Titanic. But the Californian moved not an inch towards the stricken Titanic and its desperate passengers.
The Midnight Watch investigates the great mystery of the California’s failure to help the Titanic from the point of view of two men – John Steadman, a (fictional) American journalist, and Herbert Stone, Second Officer aboard the California, who witnessed the rocket flares and informed his captain, Stanley Lord, not once but three times but Lord did nothing. Steadman’s newspaper wants him to follow the bodies, to witness the unloading of the famously lost and the tragically doomed from the Carpathian. But Steadman has the scent of a greater story. Confused accounts are surfacing from the Californian. Crew members speak of flares spotted and ignored while the captain maintains that these came from another vessel, not the Titanic. At the centre of the confusion lies Herbert Stone, a man sorely troubled and paying the price for his loyalty to his captain.
The novel moves between Steadman’s first person account of his investigation into Stone and his crew members, travelling from the United States court case to the one that took place later in England, and the third person telling of events aboard the Californian, focusing in particular on Stone and his devotion to a life at sea. But as the details emerge of the California’s failings, Stone’s almost ritualistic act of dropping his beloved copy of Moby Dick into the sea speaks volumes. This is a tragedy with a great reach.
Jack Steadman has compassion in him for everyone concerned. The Titanic killed and it also ruined lives for decades afterwards. And so we have the third part of the novel which brings alive, in Steadman’s ultimate account, one possible interpretation of the true story of the Sage family and here we can see that many factors contributed to the loss of so many people, especially the third class passengers.
It is this third and final section on the Sage family that put a lump in my throat. This was missing for much of the rest of the novel because above all else, despite Steadman’s compassion, The Midnight Watch is a fascinating but detached investigation into a tragedy. While we learn about the forces that drive Steadman on, especially his daughter, much of the novel feels like an intellectual exercise, a race between journalists to file the story first. It’s only as the novel digs deeper that Steadman feels driven to make known to the world the names of the people who were lost. This is not a novel that plays on sentiment.
The story of Herbert Stone is a much more painful one but I found it hard to feel any sympathy for him at all. This probably isn’t surprising because it’s unlikely he felt much for himself. But I did feel that Steadman’s compassion wasn’t much deserved.
Like many people, I’ve always felt a grim fascination for the Titanic and so I was drawn to The Midnight Watch. But this novel focuses on one of the biggest frustrations of the entire tragedy – the lack of action on the part of a vessel that could have saved most if not all of the lost – and this, for me at least, makes for depressing reading. And the subsequent section on the Sage family, while moving, is entirely without hope. Nevertheless, The Midnight Watch is a beautifully written novel, as well as being a stunning object in itself, and mixes fact and fiction in a compelling fashion. It makes good use of genuine court records of the day to provide another side to this terrible event, making it feel all the worse for being so avoidable. Although I did feel that the novel skimmed the surface of the tragedy, it’ll play on my mind for quite some time.