The last thing Brad Matsen wanted to do was add to the world’s voluminous collection of books about the Titanic. There are at least 1,000 treatments written in the English language, according to one collector, and a recent Amazon search turned up 3,434 books on the "sinking of the Titanic."
"There are three things about which more words have been written than any other in the English language," says Matsen, speaking with me on the phone from his home on Vashon Island, Washington. "Those are Jesus, the JFK assassination, and Titanic."
The other reason Matsen didn't initially warm to his agent's idea that he write a book about the Titanic disaster is that he would be collaborating with famed "Shadow Divers" John Chatterton and Richie Kohler. Author Robert Kurson had already written about the pair, and Matsen didn't want to suffer the comparison, to be known as the author of 'Son of Shadow Divers.'
However, after meeting with Jon Karp, editor at the publishing house Twelve, Matsen changed his mind. "I realized that half this book should be about the people who built the ship," he explains.
That ground was left relatively untrammeled by previous Titanic writers, who either spoke of the builders in heroic-tragic terms, or villified them. No one had shown them in all their complex, damning glory the way Matsen now has.
Titanic's Last Secrets opens with the discovery of "ribbons of steel," pieces of the ship that show damage from compression and tension. Together with other evidence, the finding proves that Titanic's structure was unsound. But after this first section on the divers and their discovery, Matsen chronicles the lives of the men who built the Titanic so that we might come to understand how they could make moral compromises that led to the deaths of more than 2,000 people, and then cover it up.
That's right. Newly uncovered evidence in the company's own archives reveals that executives knew about Titanic's structural defects — and tried to counterract them — before its fatal voyage, and that they staged a cover up after the ship sunk.
Matsen tells the story of these men with the craft of a fiction writer, drawing on details in archive documents, photographs, and museum relics to paint vivid historical scenes:
Even in summer, the damp London air welcomed a fire, which Pirrie himself kindled in a fireplace lined with soapstone and fronted with granite. Neither man was a drinker — a bit of champagne now and then — but that night, Pirrie produced a crystal decanter of cognac, which caught and scattered the gas light across his beaming, white-bearded face as he poured two glasses. Ismay wondered what could possibly be on the man's mind that seemed to make him so happy and in the mood to celebrate.
To write this scene, Matsen visited the old office of William Pirrie, chairman of Harland & Wolf and orchestrator of its White Star Line. Beyond the attention to detail such as this, Matsen clearly knows the maritime world: He is the author of Descent: The Heroic Discovery of the Abyss in addition to more than 20 other books, many on maritime subjects. While some expert writers bring too much jargon to the task, Matsen writes in a story-driven style easily accessible to the layman.
The only flaw in this thorough treatment is the omission of quotation marks in all but a few instances, turning a copyediting mistake into a minor annoyance. The publisher would have done better by leaving all quotation marks in, as not having them is more distracting. It was a stylistic call for prose that wouldn't have suffered by the inclusion of the marks.
Still, Titanic's Last Secrets is the most important development in the Titanic mystery since the discovery of the wreck itself in 1985, and well worth the pleasure.