In “Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania,” nonfiction master Erik Larson uses many threads to weave the narrative of the last days of the passengers and crew of the Lusitania, before its shocking sinking by a German submarine.

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‘Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania’

by Erik Larson

Crown, 430 pp., $28

It was, by all accounts, a beautiful day on the southern coast of Ireland on May 7, 1915. Families picnicking that afternoon on the shore near Queenstown and Kinsale could see the RMS Lusitania, the British passenger ship then famous for its luxury and speed, in the distance, with its trademark four funnels. Just after 2 p.m., a seaman on the boat “saw something moving across the flat plane of the sea, a track, as clear as if it had ben made by ‘an invisible hand with a piece of chalk on a blackboard.’ ” It was a torpedo, sent by a lurking German submarine.

Erik Larson’s utterly engrossing “Dead Wake,” coming just months before the tragedy’s centennial, is the story of an unthinkable disaster. Of the 1,959 passengers and crew aboard, 1,195 perished that afternoon, with many of their bodies never found. The Lusitania sank swiftly, just 16 hours’ sailing from its Liverpool destination. Many of its lifeboats rendered unusable because of the ship’s severe listing; many passengers did not have life jackets, or wore them incorrectly. Its experienced captain, William Turner, stayed on board until the ship disappeared under the blue water but was later able to swim to safety. For the rest of his life, “he told stories of the sea, but not the one most people wanted to hear.”

Larson, a master of nonfiction narrative (among his best-sellers are “The Devil in the White City,” “Thunderstruck” and “In the Garden of Beasts”), weaves the story of the Lusitania from many threads. Most of the book covers one week — from May 1, as the Lusitania left New York City, until the disaster — but it spans several continents. We’re taken inside the malodorous confines of U-20, the cramped submarine piloted by German captain Walther Schwieger, whose friends described him as a man who “couldn’t kill a fly” — but who had no compunctions about firing at a ship filled with civilians. We visit London’s Room 40, a top-secret naval code breaking operation under the command of Winston Churchill and Admiral Jacky Fisher, a “large bulb-eyed toad” who bore an uncanny resemblance to the actor Peter Lorre. We spend time with a lovesick, distracted President Woodrow Wilson, still keeping the U.S. neutral despite the war in Europe, but at increasing cost. (The disaster, which killed 123 Americans, began a shift in U.S. sentiment toward participation in World War I — but it would still be nearly two years before Wilson finally declared war on Germany.)

Author appearance

Erik Larson

The author of “Dead Wake” will appear at 6 p.m. Saturday, April 11, at the University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E. Free (206-634-3400; ubookstore.com).

And, most vividly, we meet many of the crew and passengers of the Lusitania — on board despite a warning, printed in New York’s newspapers on the morning of the departure, that travelers passing through war zones on British ships “do so at their own risk.” A vivid sense comes through of the Lusitania as its own small, densely populated country, just for a week; filled with strivers, dreamers, artists, lovers, families. Among the most captivating: Theodate Pope, an architect, spiritualist and early feminist; Knickerbocker-suit-clad book dealer Charles Lauriat, toting priceless works of Thackeray and Dickens; young Dwight Harris, eagerly traveling to London to marry his beloved (and who sent irresistibly exuberant, exclamation-points-filled letters home); Cliff and Leslie Morton, two British brothers who had intended to travel as passengers, but accepted a last-minute job offer to work as deckhands. (You wish, though, that the book had photographs.)

Expertly ratcheting up the tension (note how, as the disaster draws closer, the chapters become shorter), Larson puts us on board with these people; it’s page-turning history, breathing with life. As all stories of tragedy must, “Dead Wake” becomes, by its end, part elegy. Of one passenger, a charming young medical student having a swell time in second class, Larson writes that in his archived letters “there exists a surprisingly vivid sense of him, as though he resided still in the peripheral vision of the world.”