Review: The Midnight Watch by David Dyer

MidnightBased on real events taken from historical records, David Dyer’s The Midnight Watch is about the crew of the Californian, a British ship that stopped in an ice field near the Titanic during its fateful voyage. But this is no old-fashioned paean to heroism — because the Californian failed to help the flailing Titanic despite witnessing eight distress rockets fired high into the night sky. Dyer’s novel is about the relationship between Herbert Stone, the ship’s second officer, and his captain, Stanley Lord, whose inaction forbade any chance of rescue. It is told from the perspective of an American Journalist named John Steadman – the author’s own creation – who is determined to learn the truth behind the events of that night, fuelled by a devastating personal tragedy from years past.

The dramatis personae and the sheer magnitude of the disaster provides The Midnight Watch with all the stuff of a great novel. But despite its elegance, and Dyer’s indubitable ability to craft a gripping yarn, the novel rarely elevates above a rote historically-accurate re-tread of events. Of course, Dyer has coloured characters and personalities, and you would be hard pressed to read a more compelling interpretation of events aboard the Californian — but the novel deserves a stronger, more persuasive protagonist than Steadman. He plays an essential cog in Dyer’s machine, and is vital to the narrative hitting the right notes, but his journey reads very mechanically.

The Midnight Watch is clearly the work of an author passionate about his subject, who proves more than capable of streamlining the happenings of that day into an absorbing tale. At its heart, this is a novel about a man who evidently failed his mandate by ignoring the Titanic’s distress signals — yet never admitted his failings. It’s about his second in command, forever torn between loyalty to his captain and the moral obligation to do the right thing. And it’s about the horrendous truth of the Titanic’s final hours; how the rich were favoured over the poor when rafts were deployed. Those unfamiliar with what happened that day – beyond the ship’s sinking – will be enraptured by Dyer’s novel, and will inspire additional research. Those equipped with that knowledge already mightn’t be quite as enamoured, but even so, Dyer’s humanising of the drama makes The Midnight Watch a worthy expedition.

ISBN: 9781926428727
Format: Paperback
Pages: 384
Imprint: Hamish Hamilton
Publisher: Penguin Books Australia
Publish Date: 1-Mar-2016
Country of Publication: Australia

3 thoughts on “Review: The Midnight Watch by David Dyer

  1. Oh thanks for this Simon as I’ve been wondering about this. I’m not a fan of non-fiction but enjoy learning if someone fictionalises something and makes it relatable. (If that makes sense!)

    1. If you’re at all interested in the Titanic or the Californian – – even a passing interest – – then I definitely recommend it, Deb. I knew very little, just the basics really, which I think helped with my overall enjoyment. Saying that, when I finished the book I immediately Wiki’d the Californian for further information, but alas, none of the novel’s characters resonated once I’d closed it…

  2. I think you are right about Steadman being a rather weak protagonist. Of course, the Titanic and the Californian incident has been debated in literally hundreds of books and articles, not to mention several movies, in the past 60 years. There is no question that captain Lord and officer Stone were seriously at fault, but not the most critical anti-Lord commentators seriously believe that the Californian could actually have saved any lives even if prompt action had been taken. Rescues at sea on a sinking and listing liner are a complex matter indeed.

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