Sailing toward death, in fine style

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

DEATH ON THE LUSITANIA. By R.L. Graham. Macmillan. 381 pages. $18.99.

On May 1, 1915, the RMS Lusitania, one of the most luxurious ocean liners then sailing the seas, left New York City, bound for Liverpool, England.

Six days later, on the afternoon of May 7, as the Lusitania was sailing off the coast of Ireland, a German U-Boat hit the ship with a torpedo. Within 20 minutes, the Lusitania sank. About 1,200 men, women and children died. There had been 1,959 on board, not the ship’s full capacity, because a number of passengers had canceled because of German threats that because they were at war with Britain, ships flying the British flag would be “liable to destruction” when they entered the war zone off the British Isles.

Death on the Lusitania, R.L. Graham’s debut historical mystery, takes what’s known about the Lusitania’s final cruise and combines it with what’s surmised and a good dose of imagination to come up with an interesting and compelling story. It’s being touted as a treat for Agatha Christie fans, and it does have strong similarities to some of her puzzlers, even if this first attempt isn’t as polished and sometimes witty as what we’re used to from Dame Agatha.

It is a classic locked-room murder mystery, for starters. Our primary sleuth is Patrick Gallagher, who identifies himself as a civil servant in His Majesty’s service, escorting a British diplomat back home. It’s quite clear, though, that Gallagher is considerably more than a pencil pusher.When a passenger is found shot to death in his stateroom late in the evening of that first day, it is Gallagher whom Capt. William Turner calls in to discreetly investigate.

Suicide was the first thought – and the captain’s hope – but Gallagher sees that the body is in a locked cabin with the key inside, but no sign of a gun.

As he begins to quietly learn about fellow passengers, Gallagher realizes that there are secrets, conflicts and possible villains among the men and women on board, including some of those assigned to Table 22, as were Gallagher and the murder victim.

Tensions rise as the ship nears the war zone – and as these various conflicts play out. Are there German spies on board? Is the Lusitania carrying a secret cargo that puts it in greater peril? Could the killer strike again?

Even while certain people are taking their personal disputes, grievances and hopes so seriously, the imminent threat of sudden death looms over them all, providing an interesting perspective. And Gallagher realizes that the real motive behind the murder may be more complex and sinister than it first appeared.

This is not what you’d call a fast-paced mystery, but the tempo picks up as ship nears Ireland. The sheer number of characters could be daunting, but the author wisely includes a list of those at Table 22, with brief descriptions.

Those who are interested in history, and especially the World War I era, will find Death on the Lusitania fascinating, and classic mystery fans should be pleased. It’s worth taking the journey.

R.L. Graham, we learn at book’s end, was a husband-wife team of historians and writers. Sadly, the wife, Marilyn Livingstone, was diagnosed with cancer and died before the book was published. I hope the remaining half of the team will honor her memory by writing more mysteries rich in history.

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