Tuesday, August 16, 2016


The first popular history book by Erik Larson that I read was THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY (2003). This page-turner real life thriller combined the story of the 1893 Chicago's World Fair with the crimes of one of the most notorious serial killers in American history. It was an absolutely riveting, can't-put-it-down read and to this day remains both my favorite Larson book and one of my all time favorite books of any kind. After DEVIL, I was hooked and I quickly sought out Larson's previous book, ISAAC'S STORM (2000), which told the incredible story of the great Galveston hurricane of 1900, which is still to this day, the greatest natural disaster in American history. 

When THUNDERSTRUCK was released in 2006, I quickly purchased it and read it. It's a fascinating tale, another story in which Larson weaves two parallel narratives together (as he did in DEVIL). This time it's Marconi's invention of the wireless and it's use in tracking and catching a murderer fleeing from London to New York by means of a trans-Atlantic steamer. He followed this thriller of invention and manhunt with IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS (2011), a compelling account of the U.S. ambassador to Germany during the 1930s. He's a veritable sheep among the wolves as Chancellor Adolph Hitler and his National Socialist (Nazi) party come to power and begin their reign of terror. All four of these books are highly recommended. You think you don't like reading history? You've just never read someone like Larson who expertly locates the story in history and brings the past to vivid, detailed and thrilling life. 

He's done it again with DEAD WAKE: THE LAST CROSSING OF THE LUSITANIA (2015) which I finished reading the other day. By the way, I've read all five of Larson's books aloud to my beautiful wife Judy and she's enjoyed them as much as I have. As the title indicates, DEAD WAKE recounts the sinking of the British liner Lusitania in May, 1915 by a German U boat. Larson takes his time setting the stage for this epic maritime tragedy. He tells the story of the ship itself and the Cunard line and paints portraits of its' captain, William Turner, key crew members and various passengers rich and poor (some survive, some don't). We learn much about the German navy during World War I and it's campaign of submarine warfare. Larson takes us aboard U-20, sharing sweaty, suffocating space with commander Schwieger and his men. We go into the mysterious Room 40, the nerve center of British naval intelligence where German messages are decoded and where young Winston Churchill must decide how to use this vital information. Finally, we get a look into the administration of President Woodrow Wilson, recently widowed and struggling mightily to keep the United States neutral and out of the ongoing global conflict. He's smitten and lovestruck by a young woman and we watch as this budding romance and relationship takes shape. All of these elements are painstakingly recounted and drawn. They are all pieces on an immense oceanic chessboard in which moves of life and death are played out. 

We know from the very beginning that the Lusitania is doomed but Larson expertly manages to generate a fair amount of suspense by introducing us to various people, making us care about them and then wondering if they will survive the sinking or not. The cat and mouse game between the immense liner and the sub has all of the elements of a thriller. When the deadly torpedo finds it's target, Larson begins an almost minute-by-minute account of the sinking (it took 18 minutes to sink) by placing us on board along with the increasingly terrified passengers and untrained crew. It's riveting and heart stopping. 

Larson does a great job of recounting the aftermath of the sinking and its effect on America, Great Britain and WWI. There is some evidence to support the theory that the Lusitania was deliberately allowed to be targeted and sunk by the Germans in the hope that it would spur the US into joining the war on the side of the Allied powers. Like most people, I mistakenly believed that that's what happened. The Lusitania sank,, the United States declared war and immediately starting sending troops to Europe. The United States did finally join the war but it was two years after the sinking of the Lusitania. 

DEAD WAKE combines the elements of a wartime spy thriller, a horrifying maritime disaster and loss of life, a rich and complex cast of characters and a rock solid sense of you-are-there details and immediacy. If you have never read any of Larson's books, you're really missing out on something. He's one of the best writers of popular history currently working. All of his books are highly recommended and I cannot wait to see what his next book will be. 

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