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Sunday, 3 February 2013

Unsinkable by Dan James

Unsinkable by Dan James

Everyone knows what happened to the Titanic.  We’ve all seen Leornardo DiCaprio dancing with Kate Winslet, just as we’ve seen the documentaries about the lost treasures that may or may not lie at the bottom of the North Atlantic.  We all know that the pride of the White Star Line sailed into an iceberg on her maiden voyage to New York; we all know that she carried only half the number of lifeboats she needed to accommodate all the passengers. We think we all know why it happened - the lookout saw the iceberg too late for the ship to avoid it.  What Dan James’ novel, ‘Unsinkable’, asks is - what if something else distracted that lookout’s attention?

The story begins in London. Special Branch policeman Arthur Beck survives two disastrous attempts to capture a gang of anarchists who have already committed cold-blooded murders in the capital. Beck’s fellow officers lie dead, shot by a notorious Latvian terrorist, Peter Piatkow. Recovered from his own physical injuries but racked with guilt, Beck returns to work only to make a wrong decision that costs more innocent lives.  Beck can take no more; he decides to leave the UK and start a new life in America.  He buys himself a first class ticket on the Titanic.

Martha Heaton, an American journalist, also boards the ship.  She has been sent by her paper to report on the rich and famous amongst the passengers, but she is desperate to prove herself a serious writer - she needs a big story to impress her editor.  

James’ third character is Sten-Ake Gustafson, an old Swedish sailor travelling to the US to see his grandchildren before his cancer kills him.

Beck, Martha and Sten-Ake have little in common, but they are brought together when Beck spots a man who could be Piatkow boarding the ship at Cherbourg.  Martha wants the story; Beck wants Piatkow; Gustafson just wants a quiet life, but they will all be drawn into Piatkow’s attempts to escape justice.

Dan James has written a novel that manages seamlessly to combine fact and fiction.  The well-known details of the ship’s voyage - her departure from Southampton, the arrogant pride of her owners, the riches of the wealthy, the hope of the emigrants in steerage - are all here, but interspersed are little gems of information that bring the story to life - the Jesuit trainee priest who takes photos of the ship before he disembarks at Queenstown (Father Francis Browne’s photos provide some of the last surviving records of Titanic), the novelty of the Marconigrams that allow passengers to send messages to family and friends.  The characters of J Bruce Ismay, Managing Director of the White Star Line, and his captain, Edward Smith - the former self-confident and ultimately self-serving, the latter serious and hard working - are as well drawn as those of Martha and Beck - she reckless, determined, an independent woman making her way in a new age, he equally determined but past caring about his own survival, a man embittered by his past and the loss of his colleagues. James’ writing makes it as easy for us to identify with Martha’s joie de vivre as with Beck’s cynicism; we find ourselves rooting for both of them.

As the ship sails into dangerous waters, Gustafson, the old sailor, opens a porthole; experience tells him that ice is all around, so why is Titanic gaining speed?  Meanwhile Beck finally tracks Piatkow down - but will he be able to apprehend him?  It is late at night on 14th April 1912; Beck chases his prey onto the bridge.  What follows next may or may not have changed the course of history.

‘Unsinkable’ is an exciting, well-told, story that never drags.  James (the pseudonym of Dan Waddell) is an experienced journalist and writer, who knows how to keep us turning the pages.  He has done his research, and the details of life on board the most opulent liner in the world, and her disastrous end, are fascinating - but there are never too many; unlike some novels, Unsinkable avoids reading like a history lesson. The Houndsditch Murders and the Siege of Sidney Street did, of course, really happen, but I for one knew little about them before reading this novel.  The only thing I didn’t like about this book was the cover, which reminded my daughter of ‘20,000 Leagues Under The Sea’ and me of Jacques Cousteau.

An excellent read, and one that brings the events of that ‘night to remember’ alive for a new generation.

Reviewed by Rosemary Kaye

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