Deadly Secret of the Lusitania

When I was a boy in school, the torpedoing of the Lusitania figured prominently in American history classes about the entry of the United States into World War I. Now, in 2015, a hundred years after its sinking, I wonder if the fate of the Lusitania is still deemed to be consequential. Is World War I even still taught in 8th grade American history classes?

No matter, the sinking of the Lusitania is intrinsically more interesting than that of the equally famous Titanic three years earlier. The Titanic hit an iceberg whereas the Lusitania was caught up in the Great War and her sinking became a) another example of Hunnish atrocities, b) a reason for the U.S. to enter the war (but not till 1917), or c) justifiable because she was carrying war goods: bullets, cordite, artillery shells, and the like. If the latter, then the German U-boat U-20 had reason to sink her and the British (and U.S. ?) governments bore some responsibility for the loss by putting the ship and her 1900 passengers and crew in harm’s way. More to the point, if the U.S. had been unable to take and defend the moral high ground afforded by the Lusitania, might its official 1915 policy of neutrality have continued? Might U.S. soldiers never have gone “over there”? Who would have won the war then?

Ivan Light, in Deadly Secret of the Lusitania, uses this historical backdrop to deftly propel his mystery and espionage thriller. The protagonist is an unlikely but likeable insurance adjuster. Trevor Howell’s day job is to help his insurance company avoid paying legitimate claims by finding loopholes in the fine print. He routinely saves his company $100,000 or more per year. He has a real future in that heartless business if he can keep his conscience under control.

But two beautiful women complicate his life, his career, and his moral compass.  One of them is Italian; the other is German. The Italian has just lost her husband in a manner that the coroner declares to have been a suicide, voiding his insurance policy with Howell’s company. The widow thinks otherwise and has convincing if circumstantial evidence.  The other, a German-American originally from St. Louis (home of Budweiser beer), is Howell’s fiancée and lover. More importantly her sense of justice and fair play continually serve to prop up his tendency to take the low road. Together the two women throw him into a web of danger and suspense that doesn’t release him or the reader until the denouement.

The characters in this historical novel are extremely entertaining. There are the stevedores who load the Lusitania for its last heartbreaking voyage, its 202nd trans-Atlantic crossing. In addition, Light adds FBI agents, socialists, Wobblies, a Red Scare police detective, regular detectives, Mafioso, cab drivers, a suspected spy German uncle, a brave New York prosecutor, and (drum roll!) a fiendish, posh-accented British agent who has and will neutralize anyone whom he deems to be a threat to the His Majesty’s war effort. Light manages to make the motives and purposes of all these characters clear and compelling in a nearly mad-cap way.

If you are caught up in the 100th anniversary of World War I and the sinking of the Lusitania, or if you would like to get caught up in these exciting events, I recommend Light’s historical novel Deadly Secret. He immerses the fictional story in facts but concocts them into fictional what-ifs in a delightful way.   – Neal Ferguson

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