The Midnight Watch
In the early hours of April 15, 1912, Herbert Stone, the second officer aboard the steamship SS Californian, responsible for the midnight watch, observed a ship in the distance firing white rockets. The Californian, on its way from England to the US, had stopped for the night rather than risk navigating an icefield in the dark. Stone woke the captain, Stanley Lord, to report the rockets – universal signals of distress. Lord, for whatever reason, failed to take action. The distant ship’s lights shifted oddly and then extinguished. Hours later, the news came through the wireless that the Titanic had sunk. The Californian was told to search for bodies. Making a cursory search, it found none and steamed ahead to Boston and controversy. Official inquiries on both sides of the Atlantic failed to crack the steel hull of Lord’s confident denials of any wrongdoing or culpability. Then World War erupted, and the Titanic became yesterday’s tragedy.
First-time novelist David Dyer dives deep into the mystery of the Californian’s inaction in The Midnight Watch, more of a whydunit rather than a whodunit. Lord, after all, was supposed to be one of the Leyland Line’s “best skippers”. He “had never lost a ship, never run aground, never had a collision” and enjoyed a reputation as “a brave and decent man”. Stone, by contrast, had done the right thing but in the end chose loyalty to his mendacious captain over the truth.
Dyer’s background in merchant shipping gives his descriptions of ships and the sea an unmistakable and riveting authenticity. A talented writer, he creates a vivid sense-portrait of shipboard life: the able-bodied seamen and the men of the engine room who lie in their bunks “with less than half an inch of steel between their sleeping heads and the black Atlantic hissing past outside” and voices “sliding in and around the folds of the fog”.
The narrative of The Midnight Watch pivots on the fictional character of the “body man”, the Boston journalist John Steadman. Following the death of his infant son and ruination of his marriage, Steadman becomes obsessed with telling the stories of disaster victims, or as he puts it, giving “the poor mangled bodies of this world a voice”. The sinking of the Titanic promises to be his biggest assignment to date. The rest of the media are focused on the rich, famous and powerful among both the victims and the survivors, inciting Steadman’s righteous indignation: “For almost every rich man who lived, a poor child had died.” But when the Californian arrives in Boston without any cargo of bodies, Steadman smells a bigger story still.
Moving between an imaginative reconstruction of the events on board the Californian and Steadman’s pursuit of the truth, The Midnight Watch sails along at a good clip. Occasionally, however, in its almost textbook determination to avoid bald exposition, it forces the narrative through some pretty narrow straits. For example, credibility falls away like Steadman’s false moustache in his serviette after he inexplicably seduces the haughty, controlling and highly controlled Captain Lord into telling him all about his childhood, life and dreams – and this on the train to Washington where Lord is about to be grilled in the senate over his role in the Titanic affair. What’s more, by this point, Lord is already acquainted with and highly wary of Steadman and his snooping. To suspend disbelief at that scene would require sturdy rigging indeed.
Some of the key characterisations tend to fall into an uneasy space between cliché and over-determination. Cliché: journalists are hard drinkers. Steadman has a drinking habit that would drown a whale. And yet, oddly, it has no discernible impact on his ability to do meticulous research or be fully alert and perceptive at press conferences. So why is it there? Over-determination: the author presses the symbolic ballast of Moby-Dick into the hands of the conscience-tested Stone, who is reading it on the voyage. Lest the full import of this evade the reader, Dyer provides plenty of helpful references to Starbuck, the young chief mate of the Pequod, who disagreed with Captain Ahab’s quest but sacrificed himself to loyalty in the end.
Steadman’s voice, meanwhile, is what I can only describe as strangely frictionless, lacking grit. For an alcoholic journo with little time for religion, he doesn’t seem much prone to swearing, for example. What’s more, his views of the women’s movement seem preternaturally reverent, especially given that his wife has liberated herself from their marriage and left him for a “tall and cadaverous” lesbian with theosophist tendencies: “…this century, whether it be wonderful or horrible, was going to belong to the women”. Steadman is full of admiration for plucky and beautiful young suffragettes such as his daughter, Harriet. There’s the odd pot shot, at his wife’s lover, for instance, or the “corpulent woman” who, having failed to persuade him to yield his seat to her at a hearing, “rustled away, her skirts hissing like snakes”. Overall, however, it is as though Dyer has tailored Steadman to appeal to a contemporary female readership.
For me, where the novel really comes aground – or perhaps simply where I disembarked – is in the historical re-creation within the historical re-creation, a key section of the book. This is Steadman’s telling of the sinking of the Titanic from the perspective of an English family travelling steerage. The Sages were a real family. Readers who like tales in which no heartstring is left untugged will adore this sentimental account of working-class virtue and upper-class perfidy. Steadman focuses on the eldest daughter, Stella, whom he portrays as saintly, strong and devoted to her family. In the end, the tale of the Sages was so cloyingly uninflected, and the outcome so certain, that I found it hard to care either about the family or Steadman’s achievement in finally writing something of substance. I like to think that Dyer’s next novel will live up to the promise of the best passages of this one. CG
Hamish Hamilton, 336pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 12, 2016 as "David Dyer, The Midnight Watch". Subscribe here.