Max Allan Collins: The Titanic Murders

Cover

Title: The Titanic Murders
Author: Max Allan Collins 
Series: Disaster #1

When a passenger is found dead inside a locked cabin aboard the opulent Titanic, it’s a crime worthy of “the Thinking Machine,” the popular fictional investigator who solves mysteries using formidable logic. So who better to crack this real-life case than author Jacques Futrelle, the man behind America’s favorite detective?

On board for a romantic getaway with his wife, Futrelle agrees to conduct a stealth inquiry. The list of suspects on the Titanic’s first-class deck is long and includes the brightest lights from high society, each with no shortage of dark secrets. As the mammoth ship speeds across the Atlantic toward its doom, Futrelle races to uncover which passenger has a secret worth killing for—before the murderer strikes again.

Rating: Sunk while leaving the harbour

If we ignore for a moment that this book is set on a not exactly unknown ship (and features a real person as sleuth) and just focus on the mystery…I am already not very impressed.

It starts incredibly slow. Partly thanks to the’manuscript in the attic’ opening. You know how Holmes pastiches often start with the narrator telling you about that manuscript he found in his attic and then he did some research and discovered his grandfather served together with Watson and that’s how they got involved into this case together? And he goes on and on about it, while you’re just sitting there going “I know Holmes wasn’t a real person. I know you made this all up. Just spare me and get on with the actual story.” Here, it’s not a manuscript but a midnightly mysterious phone call that leads to some further investigation and many descriptions of things nobody cares about before the story finally starts.

At least it sort of does. Because The Titanic Murders is one of those mysteries where rather obvious who is going to be the victim. One can tell pretty much as soon as the character appears that he won’t have to worry about getting a spot on one of the lifeboats. And that itself is not a bad thing. In some of the most enjoyable mysteries, it takes just a few pages till you can guess who will be killed. But the thing about those is: the person then does get offed pretty quickly. In this eight hour audiobook, it takes more than three till the murder finally happens; and that’s simply too long. Nobody wants to wait almost half a book for something obvious to happen.

At least, once the murder has happened Futrelle can start his sleuthing. And what a brilliant sleuth he is. He just goes from one person to the next and tells them “Hey, there’s this guy who has tried to blackmail me. Has he, by any chance, also tried to blackmail you?” And this sledgehammer approach obviously…works? Because who wouldn’t be inclined to answer such a question? Especially since Futrelle is pretty much a stranger to most of them. (Of course, any story featuring an amateur sleuth will require some suspension of disbelief because normally, people don’t welcome randoms strangers who ask personal questions with open arms but there’s suspension of disbelief and there’s whatever this is – overstretching of disbelief possibly).

And now for the elephant (iceberg?) in the room. This book is set on the Titanic. Now I like dramatic irony as much as the next person and I’m also not averse to some dark humour but this book really overdid it:

  • When the first class passengers learn that Captain Smith intents to retire after the crossing, they tell him that the White Star line should still let him on the ships as passenger so he can be a good luck charm (you see, it’s funny because Smith will have incredibly bad luck, the ship will sink and over a thousand people will die)
  • When Futrelle is asked to investigate the murder on the ship they ask him to keep it quiet and he says that he understands that they don’t want the Titanic to be associated with death forever (you see, it’s funny because the ship will sink and over a thousand people will die and it will be associated with death forever)
  • A passenger tells a story that is supposed to doom everybody who hears it. He explains that he doesn’t believe in such nonsense and laughs that if he did, he would have just doomed the whole ship (you see it’s funny because the ship is doomed. It will sink and over a thousand people will die)
  • Futrelle is reading The Wreck of Titan or Futility while on board so of course, he jokes that the Titanic will be fine as long as there’s no iceberg (you see, it’s funny because there will be an iceberg, the ship will sink and over a thousand people will die)

There’s more but you get the gist. While it does take a certain kind of person to go “A murder mystery set on the Titanic? Yes please.” and I am obviously one of those people since I picked up the book in the first place this kind of sledgehammer approach gets exhausting very quickly. And is really not that funny…just like it isn’t funny that he used the names of real Titanic passengers for all characters. The blackmailing murder victim has the name of a real Titanic passenger. His accomplice as well. And, of course, the murderer, too. Why is that necessary? Why not make up some names? With some minor tweaks to the story, it would have worked just as well without accusing real people who only died in the last century of blackmail and murder.

In my teenage years I was very obsessed with certain US procedurals and Collins wrote tie-in novels for the CSIs and Criminal Minds which I read and quite enjoyed. His plots were engaging and I appreciated his sense of humour, which is why I did have some hopes for this book and was even mildly curious about the Disaster series. But now I really doubt that I will continue.

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