If you have had the chance to read Erik Larson’s bookstore staple The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America — still on the front tables at chain bookstores and indies a decade after its release, consistently rumored to be a future Leonardo DiCaprio movie — you know what the historian offers as an author. He finds a cracking good story, and manages to place it in a grander historical context. In the case of Devil, it’s the mystery of serial killer Dr. H.H. Holmes, and how the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 was the setting for his dastardly crimes, providing the cover of darkness while human innovations like the Ferris Wheel were debuting to the world.
Devil has been such a behemoth that it’s turned Larson into a name and his very own brand. All of his subsequent books have had the same art-deco style cover, with the same palette of metallic brown and gold, and his name is often bigger than the title (a sign of true success). Larson follows a formula, and he does it well: incredible history, structured in slashing, alternating chapters so that it takes on the urgency of classic dramatic structures, so it feels like a movie.
In his new book, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, he takes on the sinking of the luxury ocean liner. In the annals of history, the 1915 Lusitania tragedy has remained in second place to another, more dramatic sunken ship (the Titanic), and more of an aside about why the United States of America entered World War I.
Yet in Larson’s hands, it makes for a yarn of a story, and part of that is due to his tone — which is gossipy when he gets on the Lusitania, profiling the ship’s passengers — and due to his splicing of stories on the ship. He switches between life on board; the life of then-President Woodrow Wilson, a recent widower, yearning and writing moony love letters to his friend Edith; and life on the German U-boat that would end up shooting down the ship.
Like Devil, Dead Wake is an awkward mix of mundanity and thrilling war tales, with terrific bits of historical research and interesting facts sprinkled throughout. It sticks out when Larson notes there was a family on board named “Luck,” and the passengers didn’t read an ad that the Germans had taken out in a paper saying, in short, that all ships were fair game in foreign waters.
It’s all very classy and makes for good reading, but what’s hilarious about Larson’s work is that the very reason he’s become a brand, above and beyond other historians, is that he’s rather shameless in his use of cliffhangers and a novelistic shaping of historical fact. In fact, you could call him the Dan Brown of popular history, given the way he drops the mic at the end of each chapter. A typical example: “… she heard a voice telling her, ‘If you get into your berth, you’ll never get out.'” You can nearly hear the “da-da-DUNS” over the soundtrack and see Scott Rudin salivating over the rights.
Because Larson has such a sense of story, when he gets to the tragedy itself, the book hums along in vivid form. You feel, viscerally, what it’s like to be on a sinking ship, and the weight of life lost that day. The fact that this is coming through a page-turner history book, where all the figures and details reveal an impeccable eye and thorough research, is just one of the odd pleasures of Larson’s writing. Larson has become a brand because he’s combined his skills as a historian with the kicks of making real life into something like a movie, and as a result, Dead Wake is a very good addition to his body of work.