Mischief, Murder, and the Crooked Hinge

Back in April, I had a friendly email from David Bibb, who was reading my Rough Guide to the Titanic. He took issue with my comment in the introduction that “the evidence suggests that [the Titanic disaster] faded from prominence with the coming of the Great War”.

As well as echoing received wisdom about the Titanic’s place in history, I was thinking of an assertion by the doyen of Titanic authors, Walter Lord. In his book The Night Lives On, Lord wrote that “From 1913 to 1955” – which is to say, before his own  A Night To Remember – “not a single book was published about the disaster”.

The Titanic story certainly didn’t disappear from popular consciousness during those years, however. As my own book makes clear, full-length Titanic movies were released in 1929, 1943 and 1953; countless popular songs re-told the tale; and it figured in all sorts of plays and novels.

Funnily enough, I’ve just stumbled across The Crooked Hinge, written by American author John Dickson Carr in 1937, and hailed by Martin Amis among others as a classic of detective fiction. My wife bought it a few weeks ago, because she’s currently writing a book about Kent, and it happens to be set in Kent. It’s an “impossible crime” mystery, which centres on two boys who may or may not have swapped identities aboard the Titanic as she was sinking. Twenty-five years later, one turns up to claim the inheritance that the other has already received. Murder swiftly ensues . . .

The Crooked Hinge is an entertaining romp, so I don’t want to give away its truly bizarre solution, as painstakingly worked out by amateur sleuth Dr. Gideon Fell. One thing that struck me, though, with my Titanorak hat on, was that I don’t think any modern novelist would get away with getting the details of the disaster quite so wrong.

It doesn’t bother me that Mr Carr strayed far beyond the confines of truth. I just think crime writers couldn’t do it these days, when – thanks to Walter Lord, James Cameron, and many others – their readers would probably know so much more.

To buy the book from Amazon in the US, click here; from Amazon UK, click here.

Naming the Titanic – or now playing: James Cameron’s Cedric

This photo shows the Titanic and her sister ship, the Olympic, under construction at Belfast’s Harland & Wolff shipyards in 1910.

The White Star Line first announced the names of the two ships on 22 April 1908. The impetus for naming the Olympic seems obvious – it was just five days until the opening ceremony of the 1908 Olympic Games in London.

In fact, the name officially referred to the Greek gods of Mount Olympus – the pantheon of Zeus, Hera, Aphrodite, and so on. In Greek myth, those gods came to power by subduing the mighty immortal Titans, who had ruled in the preceding Golden Age. Hence the name Titanic.

The Olympic and the Titanic also had a younger sister, work on which had barely started when the Titanic went down. Despite subsequent denials, historians generally agree that this third ship was originally destined to be called the Gigantic – in Greek mythology, the Giants, or Gigantes, were yet another race of gods, who staged a revolt against the Olympic gods in the hope of reinstating the Titans.

The name Gigantic was quietly dropped after the disaster. In 1914, with jingoism seeming a better bet than hubris, the third ship was launched as the Britannic.

Every White Star ship, incidentally, was given a name ending in –ic, whereas the ships of their big rivals Cunard ended in –ia; thus Mauretania, Lusitania and so on. Previous White Star vessels had included the Traffic, the Magnetic, and the Arabic.

When RMS Cedric was launched in 1903, she was, like the later Titanic, the largest ship in the world.

You have to wonder whether the sinking of the Titanic would be quite so well remembered had disaster befallen the Cedric instead. Does James Cameron’s Cedric in 3D have quite the same ring?

Mind over Matter – a Titanic survivor’s story

An American first-class passenger, the redoubtable Colonel Archibald Gracie, wrote the single most dramatic eyewitness account of the Titanic disaster. In his rip-roaring memoir, he described being dragged beneath the waters with the sinking ship, then fighting his way to the surface and onto an upturned lifeboat.

He told his story for  the first time in the Washington Times of April 19, 1912 – the morning after the survivors reached New York. The tone is typically florid: “Emotions never before experienced by man thrilled me as I stood there and felt the great ship trembling”. Amid his tributes to the heroism of all concerned, though, we get the occasional glimpse of repressed panic: “only in rare instances was it necessary for the officers to use force to prevent frenzied men from pushing aside women”.

In his book, Gracie complemented his own experiences with extensive interviews with his fellow passengers, to create a full narrative of the night’s events. Attributing his survival to “mind over matter”, he wrote that in the ship’s final moments,“I questioned myself as to the performance of my religious duties”. He then decided: “God helps those who help themselves; I should have only courted the fate of many hundreds of others had I supinely made no effort to supplement my prayers with all the strength and power which He has granted to me.”

In a public talk on November 24, 1912, Gracie denounced inaccurate newspaper reports of the tragedy. “The terrible phase [sic] of the wreck was that it would go down in history in the way the papers had pictured it”. He insisted for example that the Titanic’s band did not play Nearer My God To Thee, and had stopped playing long before the ship finally sank.

Sadly, Gracie died just ten days later, from the lingering effects of his ordeal. His book, The Truth About the Titanic, was published posthumously the next year.