Thursday, May 07, 2015

Sink Into This Centenary

It was 100 years ago today--on May 7, 1915, in the frightening midst of World War I--that the mammoth British passenger liner Lusitania was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland, killing 1,198 and leaving 761 survivors. If you haven’t read Erik Larson’s recent historical account, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, you certainly owe it to yourself to do so. It’s a riveting account that puts the vessel’s doom in the context of the fast-developing war and reconsiders how important its sinking was to the United States’ entry into that conflict.

Two other books, both of them mystery novels, also pay homage to that elegantly appointed Cunard Line steamship.

1999’s Murder on the Lusitania, by Conrad Allen (yet another pseudonym used by Keith Miles, aka “Edward Marston”), is a swiftly paced whodunit that takes place on the Lusitania during its maiden Atlantic crossing, in 1907. Homicide and the theft of the great vessel’s blueprints attract the notice of George Porter Dillman, a “debonair” private detective posing as a passenger, but he’s also drawn to a capable young woman who is not quite what she seems. In The Lusitania Murders (originally released in 2002), Max Allan Collins takes readers aboard the Cunard liner for its fatal final voyage from New York City to Liverpool, unwinding a plot in which Willard Wright, a journalist and mystery writer--better known by his pen name, S.S. Van Dine (the creator of foppish sleuth Philo Vance)--goes undercover to investigate the secret shipment of munitions on board the liner, and engages in a dalliance with a female Pinkerton agent to make the crossing even more pleasant.

Oh, there’s actually one more work of fiction worth knowing about, should you wish to commemorate this centennial by diving into a book about the 1915 submarine attack, and that’s Raymond Hitchcock’s The Lusitania Plot (first published in 1979 as Attack the Lusitania!, but brought back into print last year by Ostara). As a short review in Shots explains, “This book’s plot centers around an age-old conspiracy theory; namely that Winston Churchill, who was then First Lord of the Admiralty, wanted the Lusitania sunk to bring America into the war on the side of the Allies. Not entirely certain if the Germans would actually go so far as to attack such a famous liner, Raymond Hitchcock adds the twist that the Admiralty decided to do the job themselves and have the Germans blamed for it.”

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