Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Never mind the sinking ship, I've got other problems

It's April 1912, and the attention of the world is focused on the maiden voyage of the gigantic marvel of the seas, the Titanic.  In Dan James's new novel Unsinkable, the hubris of the age is vividly portrayed as we follow several passengers on the ill-fated voyage.

The main character in the story is the disgraced Scotland Yard detective Arthur Beck.  Through a series of stressful, job-related events, Beck has become a haunted man.  Although the demands of the job have resulted in the loss of his fiancée, his mental health and ultimately his position, he remains obsessed with finding the man he believes is responsible for his downfall:  the anarchist Peter Piatkow.  Beck was among a group of policemen sent to investigate some strange goings-on at an apartment building, only to be ambushed by the criminals inside.  While severely wounded, Beck watches the deranged Piatkow shoot his fellow unarmed colleagues in cold blood.  Later attempts to corner Piatkow result in more bloodshed, and an eventual nervous breakdown on the part of Beck. He decides to leave behind the bad memories and sail toward a new life in the United States. 

Another character we meet is the American journalist Martha Heaton.  Martha has been sent to cover the upper classes on their luxurious journey across the Atlantic.  Her trip across the ocean to meet up with the Titanic was less than comfortable, so she's not exactly looking forward to another journey by sea.  Still, it was generous of her editor to book her into first class on the Titanic! 

An elderly Swede dying of cancer, Sten-Åke Gustafson, is the final character whose journey we follow.  A widower with only one child, he decides to visit his daughter in the United States and meet his grandchildren before his fast approaching death.  Sten-Åke, due to his age and illness, is moved into a private compartment, which will eventually be shared with an unwelcome companion.

As the ship begins its journey, Beck thinks he spots the fugitive Piatkow among the passengers.  Because he's become somewhat obsessed with the murderous criminal, though, he's not sure he can trust his instincts.  Still, he decides to alert the captain, as well as J. Bruce Ismay, the owner of the ship, to the fact that there may be a dangerous felon on board.  Since he wants to be taken seriously and have access to all areas of the ship, he neglects to mention that he's no longer employed by the police. 

Martha makes the acquaintance of Beck, and soon feels that there is a story associated with him somewhere.  She sneaks around to various areas of the ship in search of that story, putting herself in danger as she searches for a scoop.  Beck is attracted to Martha, and debates whether or not to let her in on the secret. 

Meanwhile, the passengers are all abuzz with the news that a fire is burning below decks, while at the same time the ship is being pushed to its limits in an effort to reach New York in record time.  The old Swede Sten-Åke knows that they are nearing iceberg territory, but he figures that technological advances must mean that the new ship is able to avoid such dangers.  Oops . . .

Naturally, as the ship hits the iceberg and begins its descent, Beck's search for the wanted man becomes more desperate.  Has Piatkow escaped in a lifeboat, or gone down with the ship?  Which of the passengers will manage to escape the disaster?  Do Martha and Beck have a future together?  All of these questions make for an engrossing and thrilling conclusion!

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Unsinkable from Independent Publisher's Group in exchange for this review.

Final Verdict for Unsinkable:  Four Gherkins,   for being an evocative and engrossing mystery set inside a familiar tragedy

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