I have been asked why I combine fact and fiction in my latest novel, Sherlock Holmes and the great Titanic mystery. The reason for this is that I believe many people are more open to receiving incredible truths offered in a fiction, rather than in a documentary work, where even the smallest event is often described in a clinical fashion that some feel too boring to wade through. The major events, and many of the key characters portrayed in my novel, are based, not only on my in-depth research into the Titanic and her loss, but also the tales of the tragedy told me by my grandmother, Gertrude Lightoller, and her brother, my great uncle, Second Officer Lightoller, the only senior officer to survive the great ship’s sinking.
Of the many wealthy and famous men lost in the sinking, one death was particularly poignant. Here is a passage from my novel, based on sources close to Madelaine Astor, widow of John Jacob Astor.
A small, elegantly dressed young woman in her early twenties, showing signs of advanced pregnancy, rose to greet us, as we entered the beautifully decorated drawing room, its walls lined with oil paintings that were obviously priceless.
Once we had been introduced, she ordered coffee from the gentleman who had shown us in. Then, at Molly’s urging, she embarked upon a sad tale that did indeed resonate with Sherlock and me. She first described how she and her husband came to be on the Titanic. In 1909, Astor divorced his wife, Ava Willing, in order to marry the eighteen-year-old, Madeleine Force, twenty-five years his junior.
‘To allow time for the scandal this caused to die down,’ explained Madeleine, ‘John and I began a lengthy European tour, during which we met and became friends with Margaret Brown here, herself something of a social outcast too. Known as Molly, she had once been married to a rich man, but her unsophisticated ways and outspoken remarks made her unacceptable in polite New York society. Together we travelled on safari in Africa and then decided to return to New York together.’
Madeleine’s description of her final parting from her husband would have brought a tear to any eye.
‘The Second Officer was organizing the lifeboat that Molly and I were put in. As I was heavily pregnant, my husband asked politely if he might accompany me, because of my ‘delicate’ condition. The Second Officer refused point-blank, and thus, I lost a husband of only three years, our unborn child lost a father and the world lost a great and good man.’
Sherlock and I sat in silence for a minute, and I knew we were both thinking the same thing. The man who had saved our lives had, without a thought, condemned one of the world’s richest men to his death. So, what kind of man was this officer really?
Then, Madeleine made a startling remark.
‘I believe J.P. Morgan to be the most hideous monster.’
She then put forward an incredible theory about the sinking of the Titanic. J. P. Morgan was the driving force behind the establishment of a Federal Reserve Association of America. Through this, Banks throughout the nation would control the money supply. But Morgan’s bank, being the largest, would have the most control through voting shares so that, in effect, he could control all of America’s money supply. Many were opposed to this idea, as it would give Morgan, as head of this Reserve, even more power than he already had. Three of America’s richest men were leaders in this opposition to Morgan’s plan. The three were Benjamin Guggenheim, Isador Strauss and John Jacob Astor, Madeleine’s husband.
‘Have you ever read a book called ‘The Wreck of the Titan?’ She asked Sherlock.
‘Can’t say I have’ He replied.
‘It’s my belief,’ said the widow, ‘that J. P. Morgan read that book and it gave him the idea to destroy the three most powerful men who stood between him and his dream of a Federal Reserve.’
‘May I ask what makes you think this?’ I could see that Sherlock was interested.
‘Let me briefly summarize the plot of the book.’ Replied the young Mrs. Astor.
‘Some fourteen years before the Titanic sank, a man called Morgan Robertson wrote a book called ‘The Wreck of the Titan’, as I just mentioned. In it, a fictitious passenger liner, much the same in design and size as the Titanic, hits an iceberg, four hundred miles east of Newfoundland, exactly as Titanic did. It was also in the month of April, and the ship carried not enough lifeboats for the number of passengers. The largest ship ever built at the time; it was considered ‘unsinkable’.’
‘That is certainly a strange coincidence,’ admitted Sherlock.
‘There are too many coincidences.’ Asserted Madeleine. ‘Morgan finances the building of the Titanic. Then, at the very last moment, he decides not to sail in her himself, as do a number of his close friends. Do you know that some five hundred people who booked to travel to New York on the Titanic, cancelled their passage?’
‘But to sink a valuable ship, just to eliminate one’s business enemies?’ Queried Sherlock.
‘Perhaps,’ she replied, ‘there was some other reason, as well.’
‘Ah. Kill two birds with one stone,’ mused Holmes aloud.
‘I just want to kill him.’ Said Madeleine.
Then tears started to stream down her face, as she began to repeat, over and over again.
‘I want to kill him. I want to kill him.’
At this, Molly Brown put a protective arm around her friend’s shoulder.
‘Now honey, you know you don’t mean that.’
My novel is full of examples of real and largely unexplained facts that point to the most ruthless maritime fraud of all time. I stumbled on these when researching my book about great uncle Lightoller, commissioned for the 100th anniversary of the Titanic’s sinking in 2012.
Many believe that ‘money is the root of all evil’. Certainly, there are many unscrupulous individuals in high places who would lose no sleep over the loss of 1,500 innocent souls lost in the pursuit of vast profit. Please enjoy, Sherlock Holmes and the great Titanic mystery, and ponder on the terrible crimes committed in it.
The master detective has been admired for over 130 years, for his solving of apparently unsolvable crimes. Is he likely to come to the wrong conclusion where the loss of the Titanic is concerned? I think not.