In Dead Wake, Erik Larson has written another fascinating history—the story of the last voyage of the Lusitania. As he sometimes does, Larson goes after the story with a two-pronged approach: on the one hand following preparations for the voyage and the actual trip, on the other hand following the progress of the U-20, the German U-boat that sank it. In this book, the story has a third, weaker prong—the romance of President Woodrow Wilson with Edith Bolling Galt, who would become his second wife.
Even though everyone reading the book knows what will happen to the Lusitania, a passenger ship en route to England from the United States during World War I, Larson manages to create a fair amount of suspense. He tells us about a number of the passengers, and we want to know who survives, of course. I think this ability of Larson’s to create suspense even from a story where we know the outcome is quite a talent.
Aside from learning about the ship, the voyage, and the results of the attack, we also learn about things that are more surprising. In particular, Larson leads us to wonder whether the British admiralty was incompetent or whether the hope that some event like this would force the Americans into the war made them negligent. There were several actions the admiralty could have taken to keep the ship safer.
I recently read an article about the man who bought the wreckage of the Lusitania, who believes that the ship secretly carried armament meant for England. It is true that there was an unexplained second explosion after the U-boat’s torpedo hit the ship, but if the theory turns out to be correct, that makes the British admiralty’s conduct even more perplexing.