Shortly after midnight on April 15, 1912 as the Titanic was sinking into the icy waters of the North Atlantic, she was far from being alone on the vast ocean, although it would have seemed so to her passengers and crew. In fact, she was in the middle of a busy shipping lane, and no ship was closer than the SS Californian, waiting out the night in an icefield only a few miles away. But neither ship knew that. As the Titanic kept sending up her distress rockets, the crew of the Californian wandered about the stationary, dimly lit vessel to the horizon, and concluded that it was just a tramp steamer waiting out the night, just like them, rather than trying to navigate the icebergs. Except that at twenty minutes past two in the morning, the mystery ship vanished.
David Dyer’s The Midnight Watch is an exploration of what may have lead the crew to make an error in judgment that cost 1,500 lives. The narration switches between journalist John Steadman’s account of his investigative reporting for the Boston American, and the Californian crew’s actions that night. Captain Stanley Lord and Second Officer Herbert Stone, who held the watch during the crucial hours, seemingly follow the procedures by observing and reporting the rockets, but they never make the decision to go to the rescue. Steadman becomes obsessed with the story as he tries to uncover the reasons behind the captain’s fateful inaction.
The last section of the book consists of Steadman’s imagined account of a third-class family’s struggle to save themselves from the wreck. In his view, the Californian’s failure is compounded by the fact that newspaper reports are full of sensational tales of the death of the wealthy and the heroism of the Titanic’s crew, but the 54 third-class children who died aboard the ship awaiting help in vain receive no mention at all.
Through two official inquiries, Stone and Lord deny responsibility and never admit that they made a mistake. Despite evidence of a cover-up, neither the American or the British investigators ever charge them with negligence. In the epilogue to the novel, Steadman, still haunted by the lack of answers fifty years after the disaster, sails to England to confront Stone’s widow and Lord himself about the truth.
Reading at times like a documentary and at times like a memoir, The Midnight Watch is a tale of coincidences that doomed the Titanic’s passengers; of the idealism versus the reality of seafaring life; and of guilt and redemption – or a lack thereof. Some of the most evocative parts of the story are Dyer’s sensory descriptions of the night when everything went wrong: it was cold and moonless, with lurking ice shining faintly as if it had stored up the starlight. As Officer Stone peers into the darkness he can detect its scent “clammy and glacial that faded to nothing the more he breathed it in.” In the middle of the North Atlantic, “the ice seemed to suck everything from the world – the waves, the wind, light, warmth – everything.” It is that – even more than the chaotic scene illuminated by the rockets – that conveys the true magnitude of the catastrophe that befell the Titanic 105 years ago.