A new thriller by a former York journalist out later this month gives a fresh twist to the story of the sinking of the Titanic 100 years ago. STEPHEN LEWIS reports.
THERE is a problem with choosing to write a thriller set on the Titanic. We all know how the story ends.
That’s not true, protests Dan Waddell. Yes, okay, we know the ship sank on its maiden voyage.
“But you can still build tension, over who survives and who doesn’t. It actually adds to the tension, knowing this is looming.”
Dan, a former York journalist who is now a full-time writer living in London, would say that. He has, after all – under the pen-name Dan James – just written a thriller set on board the Titanic, which will be published on March 29, a couple of weeks before the 100th anniversary of the ship’s fateful collision with an iceberg.
Unsinkable, his novel is called: and it tells the story of a former Special Branch officer setting sail to start a new life in the United States, who becomes obsessed with the idea that on board the ship with him is a notorious terrorist.
Dan, 39, has always been fascinated by the story of the Titanic.
“I had that morbid fascination with natural disasters when I was a kid,” he says. “You can’t help wondering what it would have been like to be on that ship, in the middle of this freezing ocean, knowing that it is likely you are going to die – and thinking, as you see the last of the lifeboats pull away, ‘What do I do?’”
He’s not the only one. There has been a positive blizzard of books about the Titanic over the past century – not to mention a slew of films, most notably 1958’s A Night To Remember, starring Kenneth More, and James Cameron’s 1997 Titanic. A lavish new ITV series, written by Downton Abbey’s Julian Fellowes, begins on March 25.
The beauty of writing a novel about the ‘unsinkable’ ship’s fateful maiden voyage is that it allows you to imagine your way into the minds of the people on board in a way that writers of historical accounts cannot do, Dan says.
It was important to him, however, that his story should be exciting enough to stand on its own two feet without the looming disaster. And he’s certainly come up with a corker of a plot.
The book starts with his hero, special branch officer Arthur Beck, accompanying a group of other police officers on a raid on a flat in a slum area of Houndsditch, in London. It goes horribly wrong. Three officers are killed, and the man they are searching for – notorious anarchist revolutionary Peter ‘the painter’ Piatkoff – escapes. Arthur himself is badly injured.
Two years later, still not having recovered from the trauma, he sails for the United States to start a new life, having decided to treat himself to a voyage on the new ship that is the wonder of the age: the Titanic. But on his very first day on board he spots, among the teeming throngs of third-class passengers, a horribly familiar face.
Is Peter The Painter on board? Has he recognised Arthur? And, above all, what is he planning to do?
Cue an exciting psychological thriller in which Arthur is haunted by the vision of this man’s face, seeming to see it everywhere he goes. A psychological thriller that develops into a cat-and-mouse chase – all with the spectre of looming disaster to add yet more spice.
Peter The Painter was a real-life revolutionary and murderer (we’d have called him a terrorist today), who disappeared in 1910, so his presence on board the ship is plausible, Dan says. His shadow looms over the novel, adding to the claustrophobia and tension.
But it is the ship itself which really takes centre stage. Beck’s first glimpse of her comes from the window of his third-floor hotel room overlooking Southampton dock.
“Titanic. The biggest ship ever built. Her towering hull looming over the town like the side of a cliff. Even three storeys up Beck had to crane his neck in order to see the tops of her black-capped funnels, like four huge fingers pointing victoriously towards the sky. It was a few seconds before he remembered to breathe…”
Dan, who is married with three young children, admits he read dozens of books when researching his thriller. “I have my own Titanic library!” He needed to do his research, he says: a lot of people are familiar with the story of the great liner – many from the 1997 James Cameron film.
So he had to get the details of the ship, and of what happened, right. “Even a whiff of inaccuracy will break the spell.”
His research has paid off. Titanic comes alive in Dan’s book, and the climactic scenes as the ship goes down are as breathless and frantic as you could wish for. There’s even an unexpected twist at the end just to keep you on your toes.
But ultimately, it is the pride and folly of those who made the ship that stays with you.
The Titanic was the engineering marvel of the age: the ship that proved mankind could do anything. Her fate was a tragic reminder that we couldn’t.
• Unsinkable, by Dan James, is published as an Arrow paperback on March 29, priced £6.99.
Ten facts about the Titanic...
The Titanic, which had been touted as the safest ship ever built, struck an iceberg at 11.40pm on the night of April 14, 1912, four days into her maiden voyage. She sank two hours and forty minutes later, at 2.20am on April 15. There were not enough lifeboats for all 2,200 passengers and crew, and in the confusion many were launched half empty. More than 1,500 people died.
These are the facts most of us are familiar with. When researching his novel, however, Dan Waddell uncovered some less well-known facts about the ship:
1. Titanic had a swimming pool on board – filled with seawater.
2. It also boasted a state-of-the-art gymnasium, with rowing machines and exercise bikes, which were sold as being ‘good for the liver.’
3. In its hold was a consignment of opium, transported for medicinal purposes only.
4. There were five pet dogs on Titanic but only two survived.
5. Titanic boasted an ornately decorated Turkish Steam Room. Among its features was an electric bath, in which the ‘bather’ laid down in an insulated box that enclosed them from the neck down. A number of electric lamps then shone heat on him or her. It didn’t prove popular.
6. In steerage, third-class female passengers were ordered off decks at 9pm to avoid impropriety. It was ‘lights out’ for men and women at 10.30pm, whereas in first and second class the lights in certain public rooms were kept on until 11.30pm.
7. One of the Titanic’s four funnels was a ‘dummy’, put there to preserve the ship’s stylish look and symmetry. When the ship docked at Queenstown in Ireland, one of the stokers reportedly climbed the inside of the funnel and poked his blackened face from the top, scaring many of the women on deck.
8. There were reported to be several con men and card sharps on Titanic seeking to fleece richer passengers.
9. However, games of chance were not allowed in any of the public rooms on a Sunday.
10. There is convincing evidence that Titanic saw many icebergs before it struck the fateful one.