What Erik Larson does in his novels is so difficult for me to define I don’t have a category for it. I labeled it as both “historical fiction” and “non-fiction”, he calls it “narrative non-fiction”, but by any name it is mesmerizing. In Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, Erik Larson synthesizes a staggered amount of meticulous research to provide an intimate vantage point within The White House, British Intelligence, the passengers and crew of the Lusitania and the captain of the German submarine that sank her.
Larson works by aggregating enormous amounts of data, newspapers, autopsies, museum collections and reports. He then incorporates the actual voice of the characters from their journals, ship logs, letters and interviews. He builds from their list of possessions a portrait of their final moments and with the benefit of one hundred years of distance can unravel the events with clarity and context. The story is immensely compelling. When laid bare with the benefit of hindsight and the combined knowledge of all participants I think it is even more tragic. I was surprised at the extent of the culpability of British Intelligence and their leadership. While the actual act of war was committed by the Germany captain of the U-20; the circumstances had seemingly been arranged through both planned action and inaction by the British with the specific goal of bringing America into war.
I only had a vague framework of events which lead to The Great War; the paragraphs read and forgotten in high school history courses. Larson breathes life and bares witness to these pivotal moments in our past. I am astounded by his gift for forensic and empathetic storytelling. Highly recommended.