A Writer’s review of David Dyer’s The Midnight Watch
“This novel grows organically into the rarest of literary adventures: a journey into the very heart of writing and all its private motivations.”
IN the scratchy, indefinite pulses of Marconi transmissions – the standard wireless communication in the era of the great transatlantic ocean liners – first-time Australian author David Dyer rediscovers a story at once indelible and elusive, of human frailty that turned the world order on its head.
This shorthand of ship radio operators, whose brief and highly-coded messaging system kept ships in communication and carried telegraphic messages to shore for passengers, crew and commercial interests, was past its infancy when RMS Titanic embarked on its maiden voyage, but it was certainly not a definitive means of delivering clarity under pressure.
Yet the lives of more than 1500 people came to rest upon it.
The Midnight Watch holds human communication at its core.
Protagonist John Steadman is a journalist, a newshound the likes of which has all but disappeared in the twenty-first century. He has a keen sense of injustice, having endured grief and loss as a young man, scars that have made him into the industry’s ‘body man’, reporting on untimely, unjust deaths.
By the time of the sinking of the Titanic, this fictional character is so skilled he’s able to navigate his way into what he sees as the real story: the factual mystery of the ‘other’ ship – the Californian – which sat in sight of the Titanic as the latter foundered, firing eight distress rockets, each of which the crew of the Californian witnessed, and did nothing about.
It’s the supreme postmodern maritime mystery, as replete with conspiracy theories as the Shakespeare authorship question, and Dyer tackles it through recreating the players and the dramatic tension that existed before the world knew about the Californian’s failure, taking readers on a compelling journey.
The tale pivots around the inaction of two men: Captain Stanley Lord, who remained in his bed during the two-and-a-half hours the Titanic sank, and his second officer Herbert Stone, who reported what he saw to the captain via a narrow pipe, yet did nothing more when the captain failed to act.
But in the end, Steadman cannot escape the way the ultimate truths remain fractured and inaccessible, lost in the pulsating radio signals that passed suddenly from workaday passenger telegrams to the desperate calls that were heard only by ships too far away to lend assistance; in the breathy, frustrating exchanges between two starkly different men onboard the Californian, up and down the speaking tubes; and in the explosive, beautiful, but ultimately meaningless sparkles of distress rockets that may as well have been fireworks launched for passengers’ pleasure off the listing deck of an unsinkable ship.
You know exactly what is going to happen, and you know the horrifically short timescale, yet you still want to reach out and lift the hapless victims out of the water you know will be too cold for them to endure.
The fate of the 1500 drowned is universal knowledge by now, but Dyer uses it to place the reader in a vortex of failure, after making the case for the thinnest, most abstract and unexpected of causes for the men who allowed the disaster to happen under their gaze.
The entire Industrial Revolution went down with the shock of it, leaving a century of war and insecurity in its wake that many believe we are yet to recover from.
This novel grows organically into the rarest of literary adventures: a journey into the very heart of writing and all its private motivations. Escapism and fantasy, avoidance, guilt, lust, fear and a pulsating sense of injustice.
I agree with other reviewers who noted the author’s unnecessary use of repetition on occasion – readers never require a retelling of moments we’ve already heard; and at times, during the rising action of the book, I questioned the very set-up of the whole fact-fiction combination.
But where it counts, The Midnight Watch is absolutely gripping and does not fail to deliver.
© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.
This article appears in Michael’s eBook Creating Waves: Critical takes on culture and politics.