Thursday, April 12, 2012

Drama, Skullduggery and Disaster at Sea

Since I claim a longstanding interest in the story of the luxurious Royal Mail Steamer Titanic, which -- 100 years ago this coming weekend -- sank in the North Atlantic after colliding with an iceberg, it was with great pleasure that I recently put together a collection of non-fiction books, for Kirkus Reviews, about that vessel and her heartbreaking, chilly fate. You’ll find that piece here.

However, there have also been a number of novels written over the last few decades that use that White Star Liner’s tragedy as their setting or jumping-off point. I’d hoped to mention some of those in my Kirkus piece, but did not find room. So I’ll list six of them below, for the benefit of other Titanic buffs.

Raise the Titanic, by Clive Cussler: This is the grand-daddy of Titanic thrillers and Clive Cussler’s third novel featuring “renowned adventurer” Dirk Pitt. Originally published in 1976 (nine years before oceanographer Robert Ballard finally located the wreck of the RMS Titanic), Cussler’s tale is built around a seemingly far-fetched plan to resurrect the Titanic from its resting place 2.5 miles down in the Atlantic and recover a rare mineral called byzanium, which was being smuggled into the United States when it was lost with that ocean liner’s sinking in 1912. Byzanium, we’re told, is vital to a Pentagon project designed to halt incoming ballistic missiles. Pitt is engaged to hoist the ruined ship from its watery resting place -- if he can find it, and if he can then avoid Russian saboteurs bent on foiling his mission in order to maintain the worldwide balance of power. Raise the Titanic was turned into a 1980 feature film, but I remember the book as being soooo much better than that adaptation.

The Company of the Dead, by David Kowalski: This new work comes from the speculative-fiction end of the stacks. First-time novelist David Kowalski spent eight years developing a scenario in which a time traveler ventures back to the decks of the Titanic in 1912, determined to save that elegant liner. But just when he thinks his plan has succeeded, something else goes amiss, and the vessel’s four-day maiden voyage ends in catastrophe, after all. Except this time, a few passengers who perished on the original crossing make it home safely, including New York real-estate magnate John Jacob Astor IV, who -- after the United States is split asunder by an early 20th-century Southern secession -- is chosen as the third president of the northern Union. By the time 2012 rolls around, the world is an almost unrecognizable place. Imperial Japan occupies much of what we know as the U.S. West Coast, along with New York City (over which float giant airships). Mexico dominates Central and South America, while Germany controls central Europe and most of Africa, and a tsar still rules the Russian Empire. Perhaps most unbelievably, Tom Clancy (yes, that Tom Clancy) is the incumbent president of the Confederacy. Now into this bizarro world comes Joseph Kennedy, a Texas war hero and the grand-nephew of John F. Kennedy, who, with reluctant assistance from a descendant of the Titanic’s second officer, Charles Lightoller, and in the face of personal danger, plots to “restore history to its rightful order.”

The Titanic Murders, by Max Allan Collins: It was in a 1905 short story titled “The Problem of Cell 13,” published in the Boston American newspaper, that Georgia-born mystery writer Jacques Futrelle introduced Augustus S.F.X. Van Dusen, a literary detective also known as “The Thinking Machine,” because he solved puzzles through the persistent application of logic. Futrelle went on to compose additional short stories and seven novels, and would almost surely have produced more, had he not perished on the Titanic at age 37. Almost a century later, another crime-fictionist, Max Allan Collins, penned The Titanic Murders (1999), the first of his half-dozen “disaster mysteries.” In this paperback, “Jack” Futrelle is given new life and a new assignment: to solve the slaying of a blackguard named John Bertram Crafton, who’s approached several wealthy passengers on board, offering to hush up exaggeratedly negative “facts” from their pasts -- for a fee. Futrelle is recruited by Captain Edward J. Smith to investigate Crafton’s demise, much to the irritation of J. Bruce Ismay, president of the company that owns the Titanic, who is on board and just wants to keep the whole affair hush-hush. Collins’ portrayal of the relationship between Futrelle and his wife, May, is charming, and he avoids letting this tale slip too far into coziness by interjecting a goodly amount of gossip and scandal, as well as a second murder and even a séance, into his plot.

The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: The Titanic Tragedy, by William Seil: Onboard wrongdoings are also the focus of this sprightly novel, originally released in 1996 but brought back into print last month as part of Titan Books’ The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes series. Author Seil imagines Holmes and Doctor John H. Watson boarding the Titanic in April 1912 as part of a covert government mission. In the guise of a naval commodore, Holmes seeks to protect a pretty young female secret agent who’s carrying important submarine plans to the United States. When those plans are filched, Arthur Conan Doyle’s two sleuths must sift through a catalogue of likely suspects that includes the brother of Holmes’ late nemesis, Professor James Moriarty. The big question: Can the Great Detective finish his mission before an iceberg finishes the Titanic?

Unsinkable, by Dan James: I first heard about this brand-new UK release from the blog Shotsmag Confidential, which posted a backgrounder by author James (who has previously published mysteries under the byline “Dan Waddell”). I have not yet acquired a copy of Unsinkable, so I’ll offer here a plot synopsis that was featured this week in Crime Fiction Lover’s wrap-up of five maritime mysteries:
It’s April 1912 and Titanic is on its maiden voyage. Among those on board are a former Special Branch police officer, Arthur Beck, as well as the female journalist Martha Heaton. She’s looking to make her name as a serious correspondent. However, somewhere in the ship someone with murderous intentions is lurking, and Beck and Martha must work together to find the killer before they have a chance to strike.
That certainly sounds like a book worth adding to my shelves.

Every Man for Himself, by Beryl Bainbridge: A Whitbread Award winner and a finalist for the Booker Prize after it was first published in 1996, Every Man for Himself is a much quieter novel than those mentioned above. Yet, as The New Yorker proclaimed last month, it remains a “masterful vision of the Titanic’s voyage.” Bainbridge captures the optimism, grandiosity and horrors of this ocean liner’s all-too-brief excursion with drama equal to that of many non-fiction works on the same subject. Her story follows a youthful Harvard graduate named Morgan, apparently the nephew of banker and financier J. Pierpont Morgan, who was rescued from an impoverished, abusive boyhood and is still trying to get used to the largely lackadaisical existence of an heir. He has recently been employed as a lowly apprentice draughtsman at Harland and Wolff, the Belfast-based firm that built the Titanic, where he came to admire that ship’s designer, Thomas Andrews. Now he’s sailing home to New York aboard White Star’s biggest, boldest creation, gossiping and flirting and generally living the high life along the way. But his pursuit of a coolly beautiful socialite ends in shock, and the Titanic’s foundering tests his inner fortitude at the same time as it exposes faults in the Edwardian class system. Every Man for Himself is a coming-of-age yarn that has aged well.

Believe it or not, these picks hardly scratch the surface of Titanic-related fiction. You might also enjoy The Titanic Secret, by Jack Steel; The Dressmaker, by Kate Alcott; From Time to Time, by Jack Finney; Murder on the Titanic, by Jim Walker; The Ghost from the Grand Banks, by Arthur C. Clarke; Something’s Alive on the Titanic, by Robert Serling; and Allan Wolf’s innovative novel-in-verse, The Watch That Ends the Night: Voices from the Titanic.

If I’ve forgotten to mention any Titanic novels you think particularly deserving of attention, please feel free to let me know in the Comments section of this post.

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Blogger Unknown said...

Only have one to add because it's co-written by Bob Ballard (with Tony Chiu) but it's not about Titanic. It centers around a US sunken submarine. Book titled 'Bright Shark'. For those who like Tom Clancy. Not great, just ok.

Thursday, April 12, 2012 at 9:47:00 AM PDT  
Blogger J. Kingston Pierce said...

I forgot to mention that there are also novels featuring the Titanic, in which zombies and werewolves and other monsters manage to figure into the plot. The human imagination apparently knows no bounds.


Thursday, April 12, 2012 at 2:56:00 PM PDT  
Anonymous Sue Bursztynski said...

Jack Dann's The Man Who Melted has the Titanic raised and refurbished for people who want to commit suicide in a bizarre way. I think Barbara Hambly did a short story, somewhere on line, with a vampire aboard the Ttitanic.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012 at 3:40:00 PM PDT  

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