One last note: last Sunday evening my phone started going berserk. There were messages from all kinds of people who had watched the third part of Julian Fellowes' TV drama about Titanic (nicknamed Drownton Abbey by some...). Apparently the episode begins with and features the events of the Siege of the Sidney Street and the activities of a certain Peter the Painter. Hmmm. Now I wonder where they got that idea? Anyway, I can assure you, after watching the episode, and with no conceit at all, that my book is better. Anyway, until next week, when normal, non-Titanic themes will be pursued...
The sinking of Titanic has always intrigued me. I can narrow this down to two reasons: the first, a morbid fascination with cataclysmic events and disasters both natural and man-made. The same prurience that led me to become a newspaper reporter.
The second stems from a childhood memory of a rare afternoon off school, feeling ill, lolling on the sofa, when A Night to Remember came on, the film adaptation of Walter Lord’s classic work of non-fiction.
I was mesmerised. It remains the best and most moving depiction of the tragedy, superior to James Cameron’s multi million dollar effects laden epic, even though the most expensive item in the budget was probably Kenneth Moore’s chunky woollen fisherman’s sweater. The thought occurred to me then, and still occurs to me now: how would I have coped if I had been on the ship?
The Titanic is a human tragedy above all else, despite the obvious myths, metaphors and controversies that still surround it. More than 1500 people died, and many of those knew as they stood in the middle of the freezing ocean, as the last lifeboat left, and the ship’s list became more and more precipitous, that they would die. I think we can’t help but put ourselves in their place and wonder how we might react. Would we accept our death stoically, as many did, or at least until they hit the water? Or would we have done more to save ourselves?
That was the starting point for Unsinkable; a chance to get inside the head of the people on board and try to understand what it might have been like to endure the sinking, which few of the countless non-fiction books written about the disaster deal with. I had also been toying with the idea of a series of thrillers set against a backdrop of real events, and I made a list of those that intrigued me. Titanic was on it, and as the centenary was approaching it seemed the best and most appropriate one to start with.
But I also needed a plot. After all, in the end the ship sinks, everyone knows that, though that inevitability, looming at the edge of the reader’s horizon, like the iceberg itself, creates a tension of its own. But I needed something else. I went back to my list of events. Also on it was The Siege of Sidney Street in 1910. Peter the Painter, the man purportedly behind the murders of three policemen, which led directly to the siege, was never found, despite the biggest manhunt in British police history – even in the 1950s he remained Britain’s most wanted man.
Some have doubted whether Peter ever existed, like some Keyser Soze of the Gilded Age. There were various sightings and reports, none of which proved fruitful. In 1912 it was reported he might be in America…the same year Titanic set sail and sank. I had my plot; a chance to tell a thrilling, vivid story on board a doomed ship, give an indication of what it might be like to have been caught up in the tragedy, and pontificate on the fate of one Britain’s most notorious villains.
Finally, I choose to write the book behind a pseudonym. The books are a departure from my crime novels, I hope to follow them with some more (as I hope there will be many more ‘Dan Waddell) and I have a different publisher, so it made sense to write them under another name. After all, these are challenging times for authors, and, like criminals, having multiple identities is no bad thing.