Unsinkable by Dan James

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Unsinkable by Dan James

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Category: Crime (Historical)
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Linda Lawlor
Reviewed by Linda Lawlor
Summary: Special Branch police officer Arthur Beck is fleeing his past. Martha Heaton is a journalist, reluctantly chasing a puff-piece story. And Sten-Ake Gustafson is hoping to see his grandchildren before the cancer kills him. They have all chosen the same brand-new ship for their voyage to the States: the Titanic.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 400 Date: March 2012
Publisher: Arrow
ISBN: 9780099558132

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This year sees the hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, and several books, for both children and adults, are being published based on the story of the doomed ship. In this particular book the fact that we already know fate of the majority of the travellers adds a whole new level of tension to a story which is already an exciting thriller. Not only is there the question of whether they will catch the bad guy or not, but also, and more crucially: will the main characters all survive?

Many of the incidents familiar to anyone who has read accounts of the sinking, or watched one of the films about it, are present here. We see the orchestra that played till the end; the rich and powerful man on a boat intended for women and children only; the chaos and lack of organisation which meant many lifeboats were lowered half-empty, and the Irish immigrants who turned the whole journey into one long, drunken party. What saves these scenes from being mere clichés is the fact that they are seen through the eyes of a small group of individuals, people we come to know well during the course of the majestic ship's voyage. Martha is an American journalist sent by her editor to cover the ship's maiden voyage. She is shocked almost to the point of fury when she witnesses the passivity and sang-froid of the British men who accept their separation from their wives and children and their likely deaths without a murmur. Beck, the policeman, advises the captain to arm the men lowering the lifeboats. His experience of crowd control tells him there may well be panic on board when people at last realise there are insufficient boats, and this could lead to violence. And the ailing Sten-Ake, an ex-sailor, is able to interpret the signs of imminent disaster long before the rest of the passengers. They mill about in their dressing gowns, declining their life jackets and refusing to believe that the tiny wooden lifeboats will be any safer than the Titanic itself, hailed as a wonder of nautical engineering.

The combination of an Englishman and an American as main characters permits a two-sided commentary on the social divisions which marked this ship, and which cause modern readers such discomfort. The premise that Beck believes he has spotted a vicious and cruel criminal on board, a man who cold-bloodedly smiles at his victims as he kills them, provides the policeman, and the journalist who pursues him scenting a story, with access to all parts of the ship. With them we admire the first-class accommodation, full of luxurious meeting rooms, libraries and dining areas. We hurry past the filthy, sweat-stained men who stoke the boilers and who continue to do their job even after all hope is lost, so that the more fortunate folk above will have warmth and light until the ship goes down. And we see the third-class passengers weeping and praying as they wait their turn to go up to the boat decks. Most telling of all is the observation that for the most part the poor accept the rich will be saved first, because that is the way of the world.

Despite an ending which feels a little abrupt, this is an exciting story of a desperate pursuit through dark passages and hidden spaces every bit as complex and menacing as the mean streets of Chicago or east London. Beck's self-doubt and Martha's self-assurance give colour and depth to the story, and the terrible fate hanging over them all provides a unique and fascinating twist to the cat-and-mouse chase.

For more factual approaches to the story of the Titanic, try Lost Voices from the Titanic: The Definitive Oral History by Nick Barratt, an excellent history of the people who travelled on the doomed ship, or How to Survive the Titanic or the Sinking of J. Bruce Ismay by Frances Wilson. Recent novels based on the disaster include The Company of the Dead by David Kowalski.

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Buy Unsinkable by Dan James at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Unsinkable by Dan James at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy Unsinkable by Dan James at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Unsinkable by Dan James at Amazon.com.


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