The Titanic Murders

by Max Allan Collins

Published by Berkley Prime Crime

272 pages, 1999

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A Case to Remember

Reviewed by J. Kingston Pierce


Talk about coincidences: I am writing this review of Max Allan Collins' delightful new Titanic-oriented mystery novel on April 14 -- the anniversary of that great luxury liner's unexpected sinking -- having just recently returned from a trip to St. Paul, Minnesota, where I toured a traveling exhibit of Titanic relics. And then what should come in today's mail? Notice of a forthcoming book (Molly Brown: Unraveling the Myth, by Kristen Iversen) that's all about Denver bonanza queen and social climber Margaret Toibin Brown, whose efforts to captain a lifeboat full of society women away from the Titanic wreck branded her for the rest of her days as "the Unsinkable Molly Brown."

Even 87 years after that supposed marvel of marine technology split apart and plummeted to the depths of the North Atlantic, killing some 1,500 people, it seems the Titanic remains very much on the public's mind. The press annually recalls the steamer's fatal collision with an iceberg. The videotape version of American director James Cameron's Oscar-winning 1997 film, Titanic, depicting the ship's maiden voyage in special-effects glory, is currently one of the hottest-selling commodities. And a series of mysteries have already riffed off the liner's story, including Sherlock Holmes and the Titanic Tragedy (1997), by William Seil; Murder on the Titanic (1998) and Voices from the Titanic (1999), both by James Walker; and Bill Walker's Titanic 2012, a 1999 thriller that posits dire doings aboard a replica of the ship, sailing 100 years after the original.

Collins' The Titanic Murders is merely the latest of such releases. But one crucial component makes it stand out above the competition: Its protagonist is Jacques ("Jack") Futrelle, a real-life detective novelist who just happened to be one of the vessel's casualties, and is called upon in Collins' yarn to solve two murders aboard the ship during its abbreviated passage.

For those readers unfamiliar with Futrelle (and I presume that's most of you), a little background is in order. A journalist turned mystery writer, Futrelle became briefly famous as "the American Conan Doyle," thanks to his turn-of-the-century tales about genius Professor Augustus S.F.X. Van Dusen. Nicknamed "the Thinking Machine" and endowed with a larger-than-average head (encompassing an oversized cranium), Van Dusen was a scientist and coldly logical sleuth who solved "impossible crimes" brought to him by a reporter named Hutchinson Hatch. Between 1905 and 1912, he appeared in 42 stories, including the oft-republished "Problem of Cell 13," an early locked-room mystery, in which Van Dusen wagers (successfully) that he can escape from a death-row prison cell using only "his brain and ingenuity."

It's been said that Futrelle influenced the works of Agatha Christie, particularly her stories of Hercule Poirot and his "little gray cells." He certainly seems to have made his mark on Max Allan Collins, author of the Nate Heller historical private-eye series (including last year's excellent Flying Blind), who in this new book resurrects Futrelle for a locked-room puzzle of his own.

Collins prefaces this tale with his intriguing (if fictional) "recollection" about an anonymous phone caller, supposedly a member of some modern dive to the Titanic wreck site, who tells the novelist that explorers have located a couple of corpses -- one bearing a crushed skull -- in the ship's cold-storage hold. Anxious to know more, the author travels to interview Futrelle's elderly daughter in Massachusetts. She, in turn, recounts how her mother May (who'd escaped the Titanic, resigning her husband -- and a number of his unpublished Thinking Machine stories -- to a watery grave) once alluded to killings aboard the ship shortly after its final land-stop at southern Ireland on April 11, 1912. The balance of the book then fills in a plausible background to these murders, using only crewmembers and passengers who were actually aboard the R.M.S. Titanic on its ill-fated voyage. (Even the murder victims were real casualties of the sinking, although the facts of their lives have conveniently dissolved into history, leaving Collins free to invent their characters and the motives for their slaying.)

The 37-year-old Futrelle and wife May prove to be a charming couple of amateur gumshoes, still playfully romantic, even after almost 17 years of marriage and two children. They drift regularly from their First-Class suite to gossip with and, later, question the ship's panoply of celebrities and other figures recognizable to any Titanic buff. In their company, we meet wealthy Macy's department store owner Isidor Straus and his wife Ida (who will eventually drown together, each refusing to board a lifeboat without the other); stuffy multimillionaire John Jacob Astor IV and the eccentric Margaret Brown, who trade congenial barbs throughout the cruise; Michel Navatril, a Slovakian who has kidnapped his two sons from his cheating spouse and is traveling to America (under the assumed name of "Hoffman") to start a new life for them all; and industrialist Benjamin Guggenheim, who confides to Futrelle that "the best days of my life" were spent hunting up gold and affection in raw Leadville, Colorado ("You know, I've made love to some of the most beautiful women in Manhattan, the loveliest ladies in Europe... and I'd give it all up for one night with one of those saucy belles at Peppersauce Bottoms").

Not surprisingly, Collins lingers over the luxe refinements of this 882-foot White Star liner, from its elegant First-Class cabins ("The last time I saw a room like this," Futrelle said, "a velvet rope was keeping me back, and a tour guide was nudging me on") to its Turkish Bath (with a "wiltingly hot steam room" and an exotic, Moorish-decorated cooling room). But Futrelle hasn't long to appreciate such excesses before he is occupied with murder, the victim being a weaselish blackguard named John Bertram Crafton, who had approached several passengers with exaggeratedly negative "facts" from their pasts and promised to keep them quiet -- for a fee. (In one of this novel's most enjoyable scenes, an irate Futrelle dangles Crafton over the Titanic's Grand Staircase after he threatens to reveal the writer's "mental aberrations"). Though initially among the suspects who might have suffocated the naked Crafton with a pillow in his locked cabin, Futrelle is soon asked by Captain Edward J. Smith to investigate the homicide -- much to the displeasure of White Star director J. Bruce Ismay, who is on board and anxious that the affair be hushed up.

Between 11-course dinners and cigars in the First-Class Smoking Room, the Futrelles quiz one shipmate after another, looking for reasons why they might have done in the crafty Crafton. The story is often very cozyish in attitude, but Collins -- who knows the shelf-life of red herrings and how to keep a historical yarn humming -- spices things up with whisperings about how Guggenheim has brought his mistress on this excursion; a second, less likely killing; horrifying revelations about a sweet-seeming nanny; and a séance that ultimately confirms Jack Futrelle's solution to the shipboard crimes.

Knowing that, in the end, all of this excitement will pale beside the ship's destruction shouldn't detract significantly from one's enjoyment of The Titanic Murders. Max Allan Collins is a thorough, detail-obsessed researcher and certainly today's foremost expert at concocting credible criminal scenarios within the turbulent timeline of history. (His suggestion, for instance, that the Titanic increased its speed -- a move that would seal its icy fate -- in order to bring its murderers more swiftly to justice in New York is a brilliant stroke.) While this new novel lacks the tension and menace of Collins' Stolen Away (1991) and Neon Mirage (1988), it nonetheless offers enough engrossing character studies, plot twists, and curious Edwardian-era ambience to float my boat. | April 1999


J. KINGSTON PIERCE is the crime fiction editor of January Magazine.