Like the Titanic before her, the RMS Lusitania was the pride of Britain’s passenger fleet in the heyday of steam-powered transatlantic travel: enormous, luxuriously appointed and remarkably swift for its time. And like the Titanic, it was doomed – not by an iceberg, but by a torpedo from a German U-Boat during the first year of World War I. Of the 1,198 passengers and crew who died, 128 were US citizens; and the sinking of the Lusitania on May 7, 1915, is generally regarded as one of the critical factors that tipped the scale of American public opinion in favor of involvement in the war.
But like many other marine disasters, subsequent investigations of the wreck raised many questions about ineptitude, malfeasance and cover-ups, including repeated attempts by the Royal Navy to destroy the Lusitania’s remains with depth charges and hedgehog mines to prevent the discovery by salvage crews of her cargo of weapons and explosives, much of it disguised in her last voyage’s manifest as “furs” or “butter and lard.” Though British media coverage following the sinking harped on the number of women and children killed by the Germans, perhaps the vessel was not so innocent a target after all. There are even conspiracy theories alleging that the Brits secretly maneuvered the Lusitania into proximity with the U-boat and diverted potential rescue craft in a deliberate attempt to provoke her sinking, purely for its propaganda value.
Sounds like a great subject for a thick, juicy potboiler of a book, doesn’t it – especially as the centennial of the disaster approaches? Well, such a book has just been published, by a New York Times best-selling author with a flair for dramatic historical non-fiction, and he’s coming to the Ecolab Auditorium at the Culinary Institute of America on Tuesday evening to launch his national book tour for Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania.
Author Erik Larson won an Edgar Award in the Non-Fiction Crime Writing category for The Devil in the White City, which was also a finalist for a National Book Award. His most recent work, In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, along with Thunderstruck – about the unlikely intersection in the careers of Guglielmo Marconi, inventor of the wireless, and Hawley Harvey Crippen, England’s second-most-famous murderer (after Jack the Ripper) – and Isaac’s Storm were all number-one best-sellers. So anticipation is running high for Dead Wake. If you want to be on hand when it sets sail on March 10 at 7 p.m., visit https://www.oblongbooks.com/event/erik-larson to order your package of a copy of the book plus one ticket for $34 (includes sales tax), a copy plus two tickets for $39.
Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania book launch with Erik Larson, Tuesday, March 10, 7 p.m., $39/$34 (includes book & tax), Ecolab Auditorium, Marriott Pavilion, Culinary Institute of America, Route 9, Hyde Park; (845) 876-0500, https://www.oblongbooks.com/event/erik-larson.