Worlds Collide, a Review of Dead Wake

Dead Wake, The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, by Erik Larson

Cover of Dead Wake by Erik LarsonI have read two of Erik Larson’s previous works. I was totally engrossed in Devil in the White City and then picked up Thunderstruck. I found it to be almost the same story albeit about a different historical event and different killer. It was almost as though Larson was plugging the results of his research into a template for combining history and true crime stories. So I laid off his books for a bit. That is until a review copy of Dead Wake materialized on my kitchen counter. I’m glad it did.

What Larson does as well as anyone is to craft rich historical characters that have as much depth as the creations of good fiction writers. That isn’t just for well known figures like Woodrow Wilson for whom there are extensive writings both by and about, but for characters like second class passengers on the Lusitania and the captains of German U-boats. Every time I’ve read a Larson book I have at least once turned it over to take a look at the back cover to verify that it was indeed nonfiction.

Larson is a meticulous researcher who embellishes his stories with a minute level of detail. We learn, for example, that one of the passengers on the Lusitania was the New England bookseller Charles Lauriat. We know that he was carrying with him a rare original copy of Dickens’ Christmas Carol as well as some drawings by William Thackeray that he was bringing to London to show Thackeray’s sister. We even know that on the day of the attack he got up at 8 a.m.

What I don’t always like about Larson’s writing is that he has a bit of a flair for the melodramatic. Consider this sentence, referring to the earlier disappearance of an American citizen aboard a British ship that was attacked by a German submarine: “It was one more beat in a cadence that seemed to be growing faster and louder.”

A torpedo tube from a submarine

Torpedo tube (photo by jurisamonen)

Dead Wake is a reminder of what a brutal affair World War I was. This is a war in which massive armies set up in trenches facing each other and fired away, not gaining so much as an inch in territorial advantage but killing and maiming tens of thousands of young men who were conscripted into service. It was a war in which civilians were consciously targeted and slaughtered as well. A war of terrorism, a harbinger of what we would see in the next 100 years. The sinking of the Lusitania was an act of terrorism. 1,195 people died. None were military personnel.

Nor were the combatants in the so-called Great War concerned about putting civilians in harm’s way. Although the Lusitania was a passenger ship it was carrying 1,250 cases of shrapnel-laden artillery shells produced by Bethlehem Steel and en route to the British troops on the continental front. Not that the captain of the German submarine who fired the torpedo that gutted the Lusitania was aware of this. In fact, if Larson’s account is correct he didn’t even know it was the Lusitania he was bringing down until after the fact.

If you watched the Oscar-nominated movie The Imitation Game, you saw the story of the British mathematicians who intercepted and decoded German messages in World War II. Part of that story was the cautiousness with communicating and using the information that they obtained for fear of Germany realizing they had cracked the Enigma code. At one point they withheld what they knew even though it meant a British ship was going to be destroyed. In World War I that group was called Room 40 and they were equally secretive. Larson suggests, in fact, that Room 40 may have had information that could have saved the Lusitania that was never communicated to the ship’s captain. He also raises the question of whether some in the British Admiralty refrained from any effort to ensure the safety of this ship in hopes that an attack on the passenger liner that had departed from New York would bring the U.S. into the war.

We all know what the outcome of this story is going to be. Nevertheless, Larson creates suspense by alternating chapters about life on the Lusitania and life on the U-20, the German sub which fired the fateful torpedo. He skillfully builds up that suspense until their worlds collide.

This is simply an enormously interesting book. It is the saga of the sinking of the Lusitania, but it is also the story of the lives of the people on the ship and on the submarine.

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21 Responses to Worlds Collide, a Review of Dead Wake

  1. jacquiegum says:

    Very nicely written review Ken! In-depth and comprehensive book reviews are harder to come by these days. I also love researched historical fiction, so I appreciate the introduction to this author and his work.

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  2. Donna Janke says:

    Nicely done review. I like the idea of building suspense with alternating chapters about life on the Lusitania and life on the U-20.

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  3. Great review! You describe the plot and the author’s intention in such detail.

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  4. lenie5860 says:

    Ken, thanks for this review. I was not aware of DeadWake or Eric Larsen. After this review I am interested in knowing more and reading the book. I will be going to the Library later today to see if it’s available. I just finished reading a book set in WWII where an entire convoy was re-directed to Iceland only to be ambushed by German submarines. So the powers that be did make huge mistakes and sometimes sacrificed innocents.

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  5. Good review, Ken. Read at least one book a week. Everything from Caesar, Cicero and Alexis de Tocqueville and Schoppenhauer to thrillers. Can’t help wondering why I have never heard of Eric Larsen before? He has after all got Swedish backgroud. Baldacci, Ludlum, Grisham and a multitude of US thriller writers are well known all over the world. But for some reason Larson is not.

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  6. This is definitely not a book for me, but I’m sure my husband would enjoy it. Thx for the review, Ken.

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  7. What an insightful book review, Ken. Many book reviews I’ve read lately are like movie teasers. I enjoy reading or watching stories that combine fiction and non-fiction I know so little about the underpinnings of World War I or the war itself. From your description, the battlegrounds and conditions sound a lot like the civil war. It seems as if WWI was the beginning of societal and financially changes in the world. do you write reviews for a living? I’m telling you this was a great review!

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  8. Ken Dowell says:

    Thank you Pamela. I appreciate the compliment but no I do not write reviews for a living.

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  9. Meredith says:

    This is one of my favorite genres, thanks for introducing me to Dead Wake! I’m adding it to my list…

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  10. Erica says:

    This was really a wonderful review. Dead Wake is not the genre of book I normally read, but from your review, I am intrigued. I might just need to give it a go. Thanks!

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  11. Tim says:

    One of my all time favorite books is the Devil in the White City. I was living in Chicago at the time of reading so being able to visit the sites as I read was a benefit I usually don’t encounter when sinking myself into a book. I had heard mixed reviews (bad reviews) about Thunderstruck so am glad this one has your recommendation.

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  12. As a writer I love reading book reviews. This is a very interesting post. WW1 was a horrible example of conflicting cultures. There was an older military culture; that was conflicting with the culture of technology of modern warfare. Generals of the old guard ordered their cavalry to go across open fields to assault machine gun positions.
    In terms of the Lusitania, it was unheard of for a ship like that to be attacked without first giving warning, now submarines were sinking ships without even coming to the surface.
    I liked your review of the book; I too like authors who do plenty of research on a historical topic.

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  13. This does sound like an interesting book. I love historical fiction, but I prefer reading about World War 2 over the first World War.

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  14. andleeb says:

    It is nice to get introduced by such works by great writers. For sure it is hard to write about history in detail.
    it needs a lit of hardwork.
    You have written very nice review Ken.
    I really appreciate your review of this book and grest to know about life on Lusitsnia.

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  15. Beth Niebuhr says:

    I’m glad to know that he has a really good new book. Like you, I quit reading him for awhile. I enjoyed the Imitation Game and it’s interesting that you recognized the parallel in this new book. I’ll check it out. Thanks.

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  16. Kire says:

    I have never read Erik Larson. Going to have to start with Devil in the White City and go from there. Think it’s time to start my Spring reading list.

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  17. revelbos says:

    Great review Ken! I haven’t explored the historical fiction genre, but your post is persuading me to do so. I’ve heard of Devil in the White City, so I may start with that book. Thanks for sharing.

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  18. Victoria @ Creative Home Keeper says:

    I keep seeing this book pop up among blogger’s reviews. I think it’s time to see if my library has a copy so I can read it too. Thanks for sharing!

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  19. MaryHill says:

    I love books like this. Nonfiction that reads like a thriller. Thanks for sharing on Literacy Musing Mondays.

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  20. Karen says:

    wow, what a book review, seriously going to look into this book. I run a book review blog hop on Mondays if you’re interested.

    Liked by 1 person

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