The Midnight Watch: A Novel of the Titanic and the Californian

The Midnight Watch: A Novel of the Titanic and the Californian

by David Dyer


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250080936
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 04/05/2016
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

David Dyer was born and raised in Shellharbour, a small coastal town in New South Wales, Australia. He has served as an officer in the Australian merchant navy and worked as a litigation lawyer at the firm that represented the owners of the Titanic in the aftermath of the disaster. His access to countless documents and artifacts has informed and inspired his work in The Midnight Watch. He lives in central Sydney and Katoomba, a small mountain town in New South Wales.

Read an Excerpt

The Midnight Watch

A Novel of the Titanic and the California

By David Dyer

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2016 David Dyer
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-9308-5


In the early years of the twentieth century my father heard that there was good money to be made in Venezuela. He had reliable information – from a Spaniard who knew a cattle-herder who knew the Venezuelan president personally – that more oil seeps had been discovered and that further concessions would soon be granted. Although I was living in Boston and had profitable work as a journalist, I agreed to go with him. His plan was to explore the seeps, obtain concessions and sell them on. 'A year's work to make a fortune,' he said. He also said my wife Olive and two young children could come too. It would be perfectly safe.

But it was not safe. A month after our arrival my baby son got a fever and a week later he was dead. He was four months old.

On the morning that he died, the local women came to help my wife dress his tiny body and rub red powder into his cheeks. They placed him gently among flowers and candles. Olive would not let me touch the baby: I had killed him by bringing him here, I had no more rights over him. He stayed where he was for the whole day, and then another. I was not allowed to bury him.

On the third day, I took Harriet, our six-year-old daughter, to my father's temporary office – a ramshackle building on stilts a few miles north, along the shore of a swampy, sulphurous asphalt lake. I planned to keep her busy and show her that life went on. We visited nearby seeps, unpacked equipment and spoke to local workers. At dusk we watched lightning dance among the vapours of the lake. The effect was dramatic and unearthly; Harriet squealed and clapped her hands. I was pleased. I wanted her to see that the spark that was no longer in her brother existed elsewhere, that there was energy all around.

But when we arrived home we saw that the family chickens had been slaughtered in their pens. They lay in the mud featherless and mutilated. Harriet – who had tended these birds, given them names and collected their eggs – slipped her quivering hand into mine.

As we climbed the stairs we heard rhythmic clapping and the singing of songs in Spanish. I held Harriet's hand tight and opened the door. The mosquito nets had been removed from the windows and candles placed on the sills. A makeshift altar of taller candles had been built on the floor, around which local women – half a dozen or so, all dressed in white – sat on boxes. When they saw us they sang and clapped louder, rocking back and forth.

In the centre of the room, on the floor near the altar, sat my wife. Perhaps she had drunk liquor, because she did not seem to notice us.

Harriet began to cry. At first I did not know why, but then I saw. Her mother was holding thin hemp strings that ran up to the ceiling through a crude system of blocks and pulleys. I followed the strings upwards and there, suspended from the central beam, was the body of my son. He too was dressed in white, and was covered in feathers. Bird wings, still bloody, were attached to his shoulders and they opened and closed as my wife pulled the strings.

A woman came to Harriet, dabbed at her tears with a rag and said, in faltering English, 'No tears, no tears – tears wet the wings of the angel, he cannot fly to heaven.' The woman turned to me: my son was an innocente, she said, an angel baby. His place in heaven was certain, and there could be no greater happiness. No one must cry. The other women clapped and sang. 'Nada de lagrimas. Nada de lagrimas.' Olive joined in the clapping, applauding the dead little body creaking on its contraption of strings and pulleys.

It took only seconds for me to pull it all down. The women screamed; I felt one beating me hard on my back. I ignored them and held the tiny corpse in my arms. At first I was repulsed by this grotesque parody of my son – even after I tore away the feathers and bloodied wings, its strange, deadweight stiffness appalled me. But as I looked into the face I became mesmerised. His eyes were open and he peered out into the world with an unfocused stare, just as he had when he was born, seeming to see everything but nothing: so physically present but so absent too. There is something strange and profound in the gaze of the newly born and the newly dead. They seem able to see two worlds at once.

Olive tried to retrieve the baby from me but I pushed her away. She slapped me hard across the face and said she would not let me take him from her a second time. There was hot blood in my cheeks and stinging tears in my eyes, but my wife's face was blank and dry. Not then or ever after did I see her cry for our poor son.

'There is a better way,' I said, turning from her and carrying the small body outside to be washed by the rain.

* * *

I buried him on top of a green and gentle hill overlooking the lake. Harriet stood with me as I did so and said a quick prayer of goodbye. A week later we returned to Boston. Olive refused to speak to me about our son, but I showed her some brief sketches I'd made of him in words: the way his tiny fingers had curled tightly shut when she tickled his palm with her breath, how he was soothed by the smell of orange skins.

Over the following months I wrote of our son's life in more detail. I began, even, to extend it a little by envisaging his future. I published a small portrait of him in a Boston magazine in which he grew into a young boy who raced automobiles. Olive read my work, but she never forgave me. I might be able to convey something of a likeness of our son, she said, but I would never be able to show how much she had loved him. That was something beyond words.

In time I began to write about others who had died – at first, people I'd known personally, but then strangers too. I began to specialise in floods, fires and catastrophes. At the Boston American, where I worked, I became known as the Body Man. If there was a disaster, they would call me. I wrote about the sinking of the General Slocum, the Terra Cotta train wreck, the Great Chelsea Fire, and more. When I tried to report on commerce or politics, my writing lacked – well, the life of my body stories. The city editor said I should stick to what I did best, and so 'follow the bodies' became my motto.

But I want to say at the outset that I was never a ghoul. I respected the dead. I always sought out the truth of how they had died, and when I wrote about them I thought always of my own son and how much I loved him. I wanted to give the poor mangled bodies of this world a voice. I wanted to make them live again. My writing was an act of justice.

In 1911 I happened to be in New York when the Triangle Shirtwaist factory caught fire, killing nearly a hundred and fifty people, most of them young immigrant women. I saw the Asch Building ablaze at Washington Place and watched the girls jumping from the ninth and tenth floors. I saw five girls leap together from a window, their hair and dresses on fire. I saw another girl hang as long as she could from the brick sill until the flames touched her hands and she let go. I watched another stand at a window, throw out her pocket book, hat and coat, and step out into the cool evening air as calmly as if she were boarding a train.

When the bodies were taken to a ramshackle pier adjacent to the Bellevue Hospital I followed them. They were lined up in neat double rows, either side of the long dock, some in open boxes, others simply laid on the bare planking. I walked up and down. I said sorry on behalf of my country to those poor girls, who stared back at me in open-eyed surprise, and I took notes. In the following weeks, I found out the truth of what happened to them. I told the world how Max Blanck, the factory's owner, had climbed a ladder to a building next door and left them to die. I brought the girls to life as best I could, publishing stories in Boston, New York and London. Like a courtroom sketch artist, I tried to capture their likenesses in a few finely observed strokes – a phrase here, a sentence there. It worked. People read my little portraits and felt the injustice of it all. They said such a thing must never happen again. At the Boston American the city editor passed a note to his juniors: 'If there are bodies, call Steadman.'

So when my telephone rang at two o'clock one Monday morning just over a year later, I knew it would be my newspaper and I knew there would be bodies. I wasn't disappointed. The duty editor told me an extraordinary thing: the new Titanic had struck ice and been seriously damaged. People may have been killed in the collision. The station at Cape Race had heard the ship calling for help. The duty editor assured me he was perfectly serious; it was not a joke.

I dressed quickly and walked the mile and a half from my apartment to the Boston American office. The streets were deserted. There was no moon and shreds of cold mist drifted in from the harbour like floating cobwebs. I could smell saltwater. In downtown Boston the North Atlantic always felt close and alive, but at this hour it seemed especially so. I thought about the Titanic out there somewhere, her bow crushed, crewmen caught in the mangled steel. I began to plan how I might get aboard when the ship limped into port.

When I arrived at the Washington Street office, Krupp, the city editor, was already there, shouting at newsboys and dictating cablegrams. Tickers clattered and telephone bells rang. As soon as he saw me Krupp told me to go downstairs and get hold of someone from White Star in New York on the long-distance line – preferably Philip Franklin himself. But the line was overloaded. The operator could not get me through. I tried instead to call Dan Byrne, my friend at Dow Jones, and then the Associated Press, but the lines were busy.

'Never mind about the telephone then,' Krupp said, interweaving his fingers so that his hands looked like a mechanical bird trying to take flight. 'Go down there, to New York, on the first train, and get it all from Franklin direct. There are bodies here, John, I can smell 'em.' He laughed at his own joke.

A couple of hours later, as streaks of pale grey began to lie along the horizon and a feeble crescent moon showed itself in the eastern sky, I boarded the train out of Boston for New York. Something told me that Krupp was right: there was a good body story for me here. I felt a tingling energy in my fingers, as though they were already beginning to write it.


Herbert Stone tapped his teeth with his fingers as if playing a small piano. He had come from his cabin to the port side of the promenade deck to take his afternoon sun sights, and been surprised to see three large, flat-topped icebergs a mile or so away across the still ocean. They were magnificent things, with lofty cliffs catching the yellows and pinks of early sunset, but Stone was worried. Only last year the Columbia had struck ice off Cape Race and smashed up her hull plates, and this year even more bergs had come sweeping south into the shipping lanes. There would be many more up ahead.

He lifted his sextant, put in place its shades and took two altitudes of the low sun. He then stepped into the chartroom, a small space squeezed between the captain's cabin on one side and a bare steel bulkhead on the other, and began to work up his sights. Someone had marked on the chart the ice reported by wireless over past days, and most of it lay to the west, directly across their track. When he plotted the ship's position he saw that the ice was only about seven hours' steaming away. They would likely meet it during his watch later that night.

Stone walked back to the ship's rail and looked again towards the south. The three icebergs had drifted astern but he could still see them, stately and tall and brilliantly lit. But he knew not all icebergs were like this. Some were low and grey, and tonight there would be no moon. He wondered how, during the dark hours of the midnight watch, he would able to see them.

* * *

The SS Californian was an ordinary ship, but that's what Herbert Stone liked most about her. The glamorous new liners of White Star or Cunard were not for him; this modest vessel was good enough. She was middle-aged, middle-sized, and carried commonplace cargoes. Sometimes she also carried passengers – in nineteen old-style, oak-panelled state-rooms – but there had been no bookings for this trip. Instead she had loaded in London textiles, chemicals, machine parts, clothing and general goods, and waiting for her in Boston were a hundred thousand bushels of wheat and corn, a thousand bales of cotton, fifteen hundred tons of Santo Domingo sugar, and other assorted cargoes.

Stone had learned during his training that ships could be spiteful, dangerous things. They could part a mooring rope so that its broken end whoop-whooped through the air like a giant scythe, or take a man's arm off by dragging him into a winch drum, or break his back by sending him sprawling down a cargo hold. But the Californian had done none of these. She was gentle and benign. She had four strong steel masts, and a single slender funnel that glowed salmon-pink and glossy black when the sun shone on it. She rode easy in the Atlantic swells, found her way through the thickest fogs, and her derricks never dropped their cargo. She was a vessel at ease with herself – unpretentious, steady and solid.

Stone was proud to be her second officer and each day he tried to serve his ship as best he could. He was responsible for the navigation charts, making sure they were correct and up to date, and had charge of the twelve-till-four watch. From midday until four o'clock in the afternoon, and from midnight until four o'clock in the morning, he stood watch on the bridge and had command of the ship. The twelve-till-four shift at night was properly called the middle watch, but most sailors knew it as the midnight watch and Stone liked the name: it gave a touch of magic to those four dark hours when the captain and crew slept below and he alone kept them safe.

The midnight watch required vigilance, so he tried always to get some good sleep beforehand. While other officers might visit the saloon after dinner to play cards with the off-duty engineers, or even have a shot of whisky, Stone would retire to his cabin. By eight o'clock he'd be in bed reading, and by nine he would be asleep. That gave him almost three hours' sleep before his watch began.

But on this cold Sunday night, halfway between London and Boston, he found himself still awake at nine-thirty. He was thinking about the icebergs he'd seen. The lively bounce and throb of his bunk told him that the ship was still steaming at full speed. He thought the captain might have slowed down as darkness fell, given there was ice about, and he was worried they might keep up full speed for the whole night. Stone pictured the men crowded into cramped living quarters low in the ship's bow – the bosun, the carpenter, the able-bodied seamen, the greasers, trimmers, firemen and donkeymen – lying in their bunks with less than half an inch of steel between their sleeping heads and the black Atlantic hissing past outside.

He flicked on his reading light and took up his book again – Moby-Dick, a gift from his mother. The novel soothed him. He thought no more about icebergs but instead imagined Starbuck aloft, scanning the horizon, handsome in his excellent-fitting skin, radiant with courage and much loved by a noble captain.

* * *

In the wireless room Cyril Evans, a bespectacled twenty-year-old with black hair pasted flat to his head with machine oil, was at work at his equipment. He loved the new technology. He'd been a star pupil at the Marconi school in London, mastering quickly the dash-dot sequences of Morse code, learning the rhythm first of each letter and then of complete words and sentences. Nowadays he even dreamt in the code.

Evans had been happy to be appointed to the Californian when her wireless set was installed on the previous voyage, but life on board soon became difficult. Captain Lord, on their first meeting, looked at him as if he were part of the machinery, a box with wires and dials, and had referred to the equipment as 'an instrument for tittle-tattle and gossip'. The wireless room doubled as Cyril's sleeping quarters, and within this confined space he worked from seven o'clock in the morning until eleven o'clock at night, seven days a week. Whenever he walked on the open deck, sailors laughed at his thin arms and thick glasses. During a lifeboat drill he had been assigned the role of panicking passenger, and when the seamen asked him to sit in the stern and look pretty, and then to put on a lady's hat and cry for help, he tried to join in the fun, but at the end of it all he was humiliated.


Excerpted from The Midnight Watch by David Dyer. Copyright © 2016 David Dyer. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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The Midnight Watch: A Novel of the Titanic and the Californian 4.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
cloggiedownunder More than 1 year ago
The Midnight Watch is the first novel by Australian teacher and author, David Dyer. While the story of the sinking of the SS Titanic in April 1912 will be familiar to most people, the part played in the drama by the master and crew of the SS Californian is probably less well-known. While it is argued about, many accept that the Californian was the ship closest to Titanic when she sank; was, in fact, within sight of Titanic, and did not react when Titanic fired off eight distress rockets at five-minute intervals, except to signal with the Morse lamp. Nor did they try to contact the Titanic via wireless. Dyer tells the story of what probably happened on the Californian that night, what the master and the crew did, and what occurred on their arrival in Boston, as well as their testimonies at the subsequent US Senate Inquiry in Washington DC and the British Inquiry in London. His narrator is John Steadman, a fictional journalist for the Boston American, whose story was instrumental in forcing master and crew to appear before the Inquiries. The latter section of the book is a story titled Eight White Rockets, which Steadman has written as “an account the sea tragedy of the Titanic and the Sage Family”, an actual family of eleven which perished in the sinking. Dyer’s story is historical fiction but is based on fact. Many of the characters he fills out for the reader actually existed, and much of what he describes is backed up by witness accounts. Some of it is likely to leave the reader gasping. Dyer’s expertise in this field is apparent on every page. It should be noted that he spent many years as a lawyer at the London legal practice whose parent firm represented the Titanic’s owners in 1912. He has also worked as a cadet and ship’s officer on a wide range of merchant vessels, having graduated with distinction from the Australian Maritime College. His talent as an author ensures that this already-fascinating story takes on a human aspect. As well as being interesting and informative, this is a moving and captivating read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Having known the unsinkable Titanic sank and many people died was basically all I knew. This novel introduced me to the travesty of the ship that watched the Titanic's distress rockets, ignored their morse code pleas, and then tried to deny the whole thing. Seeing her sink from a different perspective, then knowing most, if not all, could have been saved is devastating. The captain simply refused to respond. He just couldn't be bothered. Highly recommend this well-written historical novel which puts you at the scene. Fascinating and terrifying...
FrancescaFB More than 1 year ago
THE MIDNIGHT WATCH pays tribute to all those who died in one of the most tragic loss of life events in history. THE MIDNIGHT WATCH is a well-researched novel about the Californian, the ship that watched the white distress rockets shot into the pitch-black sky of the North Atlantic as the Titanic sank. The aftermath and official inquiries were the main focus of this novel, and that is something rarely focused on. Although written as fiction, but based upon historical fact, David Dyer masterfully blends the reality of that tragic event through the American and British investigations. This novel is a highly recommend, well-written historical novel which puts you at the scene. Reading about the Titanic disaster is always fascinating and terrifying. Dyer shares with us the heartbreak and tragedy, humanity, sorrow and loss. It also addresses the hopelessness of the Californian’s crew members, who could not seem to relay to their disinterested Captain the importance of what was being observed off in the dark sky of the North Atlantic. Descriptions of the icy grave of the North Atlantic add to the agony of all those lost, and this is unimaginable. Whether lost to the sea or rescued to remember, the passengers and crew of the Titanic will forever be embroidered into the fabric of our lives, and THE MIDNIGHT WATCH presents the shameful acts of the Californian’s Captain and crew, who through their inaction, allowed so many to meet their deaths.
Ilovemister More than 1 year ago
This is so good.It is hard to Imagine what the passengers went thru.
MorrisMorgan More than 1 year ago
For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by the story of the Titanic disaster. I believe this can be said of many who grew up to become historians or develop a lifelong love of history. “The Midnight Watch” is a well-researched novel about the Californian, the ship that watched as the Titanic sank. It’s almost inexplicable why there has been so little written about the events on the ship. The actions of her crew, or more correctly inactions, arguably changed the fate of over 1500 souls. The author has obviously spent a good amount of time researching using primary sources and piecing together a good narrative of what most likely happened. What I enjoyed the most was the actual sinking was a very minor part. The aftermath and inquiries were the main focus, and that is something also rarely focused on. An extra layer of the story is created through the use of a fictional journalist for a Boston paper named Steadman. His pursuit of the truth provided a way to present the aftermath in a way which did not read like a dull history text. I especially appreciated the look into how journalism worked in those days, as well as the beginnings of the women’s rights movement. It was fascinating. Unfortunately, the character himself was someone I found a bit unbearable. That’s the reason for four stars as opposed to five. The crowning jewel of “The Midnight Watch” is a short story included at the end entitled “Eight White Rockets.” There is one section for each rocket. It follows the Sage family, consisting of 9 children and their parents, during the sinking. This was a real family and details of their lives are sprinkled throughout the story. The treatment of third class passengers goes a long way toward explaining how so many children perished. The story also tells about what was happening on the Californian during the same time frame of each rocket. It gave me chills, and I still cannot stop thinking of those children and what might have been. I highly recommend “The Midnight Watch” to anyone middle grade and up who has a fascination with the Titanic and wants a deeper understanding of what happened on that fateful night. This review is based upon a complimentary copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
GratefulGrandma More than 1 year ago
Over the years I have seen movies and read stories about the Titanic, but I had not heard about the Californian and her story involving the Titanic tragedy. The author did a wonderful job of weaving a story around the actual facts that came to light during the investigation of the sinking of the Titanic. The story is told from the perspective of John Steadman, a Boston Journalist. The story revolves around Captain Stanley Lord and his First Officer Herbert Stone. Stone was on the Midnight Watch when he sees what appears to be white rockets, signalling a ship in distress. When he tells the captain, he does not come up on deck, but directs his officer to gather more information. This is the mystery, why does he do nothing? Could they have saved the 1500 passengers who drown if they had gone to the rescue? The story follows the investigation in both the US and England that try to pinpoint what happened and if anything else could be done. Steadman's life is also described which molded him into the man he was. He begins to try and investigate the lives of the men on the Californian to find out why they acted the way they did. This story also highlights a family of 11 from third class who are all victims of the sinking. John Steadman writes a story combining a possible scenario that weaves together the stories of the Sage family, the captain and the officer on the Midnight Watch in an engrossing story published in several newspapers and serial publications. David Dyer does a very good job of taking the historical facts and writing a fictional story that both entertains and enlightens. This would be a very good book for an English class to study as well as a history read. I recommend this book to intermediate and highschool students and classes. A great addition to school and public libraries. I received a copy of this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
FeatheredQuillBookReviews More than 1 year ago
David Dyer blends fact with fiction and delivers a magnificent tale of what (perhaps) really happened in the aftermath of the sinking of the iconic Titanic in his debut novel, The Midnight Watch. In the barren and frigid waters of the North Atlantic, the Titanic would experience her last day afloat during her virgin crossing from England to America. Something is amiss in the early morning hours of April 14, 1912. The Titanic has entered a field of unyielding icebergs and strikes them head on. The steamer, Californian, is nearby; watching the tragedy unfold. Midnight Watchman, Herbert Stone, witnesses the first of a total of eight distress rockets. It rips a stream of white fire across the dark and desolate night sky in its cry for help. Stone immediately recognizes the maritime distress call and retrieves the speaking tube to alert his sleeping Captain Lord. Imagine Stone’s quandary when the response he receives from his beloved Captain was to persist in further due diligence and not disturb him until he is certain the signal was one of distress. Another and yet another bright white rocket that pierces the night sky to no avail. Communication by Morse lamp and the new Marconi telegraph is non-existent. By the morning of April 15th, the Titanic has been lost to the sea forever; carrying along with her more than fifteen hundred passengers and crew. John Steadman is a reporter for the Boston American. When word reaches Boston of the tragedy of the ship’s passing, all hands are on deck so to speak. There is a scoop to be gotten and it had better be by the Boston American first and foremost. Steadman was no stranger to compelling stories. He had an innate ability to read the souls of those who had perished. His writing ability gave them life long after death had consumed them. Somehow, the sinking of this majesty of a vessel would be different. Something wasn’t quite right in the timeline and how was it with the Californian being so close but yet so far, she was unable to scurry to the Titanic’s rescue? For the first time in his reporting career, Steadman would face-off the challenge of writing a piece that catered to those who survived versus those who no longer had the luxury of imparting their story. David Dyer is a lyrical and masterful wordsmith in his telling of The Midnight Watch. He has patiently stepped a story that, to this day, intrigues historians and poses the age-old question of what really happened (beyond the obvious of striking a massive iceberg). There is a beautiful marriage between the fact and fiction across the pages of this story that consumes the reader from the onset. He carefully tends to each of his characters; breathing a splendid believability into their humanness. There is an engagement and connection displayed in each passage of prose Dyer lays out that lends its way to concise and direct dialogue. It is abundantly clear Mr. Dyer was passionate toward laying down facts with precise accuracy as much as he was committed to overlaying the facts with fantastic fictional enhancement. His nautical knowledge is superb in that he demonstrates time and again correct terminology and places it exactly where it is destined to be placed. I applaud this author for penning an exceptional read coupled with the fact it is his debut novel. In my opinion, the stakes have just gotten much higher for fellow authors in this genre. Mr. Dyer is a force to reckon and I anxiously anticipate his next body of work. Well done Mr. Dyer.