Erik Larson has spent much of his career writing about history’s unlikely intersections, but none of these have been as dramatic as the convergence he tackles in Dead Wake: The Last Crossing Of The Lusitania. The bestselling author of The Devil In The White City and Thunderstruck puts his mastery of penning parallel narratives on display as he tells the tale of the sinking of the Lusitania by a German submarine, building an ever-growing sense of dread as the two vessels draw closer to their lethal meeting.
Larson’s latest work of narrative non-fiction uses historical records, letters, and journal entries to tell the story of Unterseeboot-20 and its captain Walther Schwieger, the crew and passengers aboard the luxury transatlantic liner the Lusitania, and the political buildup to World War I. Germany, France, and England are already locked in combat when the book opens, and while American sentiment originally favored neutrality, global tensions were rising.
Just as The Devil In The White City alternated between stories of grisly murder and looks at the complexities and luxuries of the Chicago World’s Fair, Dead Wake’s chapters have decidedly different tones. It’s easy to favor the chapters that portray the tense life aboard Schwieger’s U-boat. The captain was tasked with sinking anything bound for Britain and would be commended based on how big a target he could send to the ocean floor. He was also out of contact with any superiors and confined with his crew in a hot and foul-smelling vessel that was severely limited in how long it could stay below water. Without sonar, the U-boat could also be blasted by destroyers when it surfaced to look for targets. It was also slow, and torpedoes were incredibly unreliable. Movements were partially controlled by crew members running back and forth.
Unsurprisingly, the British maritime brass and those involved with the Lusitania underestimated submarines, largely ignoring a warning published by the German government that the seas around England should be considered a war zone. Larson reconstructs the happenings aboard the Lusitania, painting a picture not dissimilar to that of a modern cruise ship. There were lavish dinners, talent shows, card games, and plenty of people reading in deck chairs. Before the ship sunk, the greatest misfortune reported was a case of the measles.
The early chapters introducing the elite passengers who would cross the Atlantic aboard the Lusitania are dull, especially when compared to tales of U-boats ambushing fishermen just to get some fresh food. But the banality serves a purpose, showing just how out of touch America was with global affairs. That point is made even clearer with peeks at President Woodrow Wilson, whose chief preoccupation at the time was writing love letters as part of a courtship that plays out like a historical version of Aaron Sorkin’s The American President. Bits about the devastation of trench warfare and the first uses of chemical weapons are used sparingly—they’ve been covered far more extensively in other works—but their appearances ground Larson’s discordant prose about the president’s romantic drives around Washington, D.C.
Larson does get too cutesy at times as he comments on handwriting or quips about the irony of people’s names, like Lusitania passengers the Luck family. But he can be forgiven for some unnecessary ornamentation since the other details he pulls in are so fascinating. Readers are more likely to be familiar with the fate of the Lusitania than the stories Larson tells in his previous books, but he goes well beyond what’s taught in history classes to offer insights into British intelligence and the dealings that kept the ship from having the military escort so many passengers expected to protect it. Larson also seems to be pulling in a bit of extra research from his work on Thunderstruck, showing the continued relevance of both the wireless telegraph and the era’s fascination with the occult.
While Dead Wake doesn’t quite recapture the magic of The Devil In The White City, it’s Larson’s strongest work since then. By piecing together how politics, economics, technology, and even the weather combined to produce an event that seemed both unlikely and inevitable, he offers a fresh look at a world-shaking disaster.