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'Dead Wake' by Erik Larson: EW review

Posted on

Dead Wake

Current Status:
In Season
Erik Larson

We gave it an A-

“Remember the Lusitania!” Not many do, though they may dimly recall a high school history lesson about how the British luxury liner’s 1915 demise at the hands of a German submarine helped pull the United States into World War I. Nearly 1,200 people perished after a torpedo ripped into the ship’s hull, sending it to the seafloor in just 18 chaotic minutes. Erik Larson—a longtime master of historical nonfiction—has culled through reams of documents to find the spellbinding backstory, the convergence of myriad forces that led the Atlantic’s most graceful ship directly into the crosshairs of a U-boat just miles off the coast of Ireland.

The final voyage of the Lusitania was dramatic before it even left New York, since the German embassy had taken out an ad in the Gotham papers warning Americans against sailing into a war zone under the British flag. Hence, the world was watching as “Lucy” defied the ominous threat. Larson digs into the biographies of the elite passengers, drops in on President Wilson—trying to keep America out of the war while harboring his own romantic heartbreak—and eavesdrops on Room 40. That would be the top secret British intelligence unit that cracked the German codes and spent the war weighing the costs and benefits of acting on gleaned intelligence, à la The Imitation Game.

But the star, if not the hero, of Dead Wake is Walther Schwieger, the ruthless sub captain who pulled the trigger. Larson’s rich descriptions of life piloting a fragile, slow-moving coffin that was completely blind when submerged are both terrifying and enthralling. As the two vessels stumble upon each other, the story almost takes on the narrative pulse of Jaws—the sinking was impossible and inevitable at the same time. At no point do you root for the shark, but Larson’s incredible detail pulls you under and never lets you go. A–