Erik Larson recounts sinking of Lusitania

DEAD WAKE: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania. By Erik Larson. Crown Publishers. 429 pages. $28.

Erik Larson is a master of nonfiction writing, crafting suspenseful thrillers out of real life stories. His previous books include “Isaac’s Storm,” “Devil in the White City” and “In the Garden of Beasts.”

In addition to his strong storytelling, what made each of his previous books so great was that Larson tackled relatively unknown topics, from a horrific hurricane that battered Galveston at the turn of the 20th century to a serial killer who stalked his victims at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.

In his latest nonfiction book, “Dead Wake,” Larson has chosen the 1915 sinking of the luxury liner Lusitania as his subject. For history buffs and even casual students of world affairs, the story is well known, and that is the biggest challenge of the book.

The Lusitania is a lot like the Titanic, one of those unimaginable sea tragedies involving an ocean liner; only in this case, tragedy came in the form of a German torpedo as opposed to an iceberg.

Larson’s book is a fast-paced, visual read. His attention to detail, as always, is masterful. He slides readers easily into the past with his wonderful descriptions of the food, clothing and snippets of conversation.

Likewise, his account of life aboard the German submarine U-20 is fascinating, and again, his account is punctuated with interesting facts. The submarine, for example, had a black dachshund on board that the crew named Maria, after a ship the sub sank and from which the dog was rescued.

Structurally, Larson has set up the story so that it largely bounces back and forth from the Lusitania to the U-boat. The reader knows that twin narratives are at some point going to connect — tragically, of course.

In addition, he weaves in a couple of smaller storylines, including the secretive Room 40, Britain’s code-breaking outfit that ultimately muffs the chance to prevent U-20s attack on the Lusitania. He likewise tosses Woodrow Wilson into the mix, who recovering from the death of his wife, falls in love again.

Still, despite Larson’s strong writing and the technical strength of the narrative, the book feels a lot like retreading old ground. Part of Larson’s challenge is the large body of work that already exists on the Lusitania, including Diana Preston’s excellent 2002 book “Lusitania.”

Larson’s account, though wonderfully told, simply doesn’t add much to the existing body of literature other than a new telling of the story. For readers who don’t know much about the Lusitania, that may be fine, but folks who are well versed in the story will likely come away disappointed.

One of the most haunting moments of the book comes near the end when Larson, who was allowed rare access to morgue photographs, describes the victims’ facial expressions, trying to imagine what each thought when they died.

Few are as haunting as his description of a naked woman with sand still in her hair, identified only as Body No. 109. “Her cheeks are puffed, her lips are tightly clamped,” he writes. “She looks uncannily as if she were still holding her breath.”

Reviewer James Scott is the author of “Target Tokyo,” “The War Below” and “The Attack on the Liberty.” He lives in Mount Pleasant.