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Cannonball Read #9: When the Dancing Stopped: The Real Story of the Morro Castle Disaster and Its Deadly Wake by Brian Hicks

Well, here we are with number three in "The Caustic Critic's Maritime Disaster Series". (I will warn you...I have become totally obsessed. I have actually been checking Wikipedia for other disasters to see if in fact there are any non-fiction books about them. In case you're wondering, in the near future you can expect the whale ship Essex, the Andrea Doria, the Mary Celeste, the Lusitania, and the steamboat General Slocum. I have also added several related movies to my Netflix queue--Beyond the Poseidon Adventure, A Night to Remember, Poseidon [the made-for-TV-movie with "The Gutt"], and Deep Water as well as a couple documentaries on the Titanic.)

The Morro Castle was a luxury liner which sailed from New York City to Havana, Cuba during the early thirties. Although its primary function was to transport mail between the two cities, the ship also had a decent passenger business--despite the ever-worsening depression--taking tourists to "Gay Havana" which at the time was still a wild party town. On the Labor Day cruise in 1934, the ship mysteriously caught fire and sunk, killing more than half the passengers and crew aboard. This book tells that story, but also tells the story of George Rogers, a radio operator who was convicted of murdering two elderly neighbors as well as attempting to kill a friend with a bomb. The connection between those two stories is that George Rogers was the radio operator on the Morro Castle, and many believe he was responsible for setting the fire, and possibly also for murdering the ship's captain before the fire began.

The author of the book, Brian Hicks, has obviously done painstaking research, and although the book tends to be a novelization, it is comfortable with inserting facts (as well as their sources) into the story. The main voice we hear from during the parts of the story which take place on the Morro Castle is Tom, a young man who was working on the ship that summer. Hicks had a chance to interview Tom (who was roughly 84 at the time Hicks met him) and get a lot of details not just about the fire itself, but also about the way the ship ran and about the tensions and problems among the crew leading up to the disaster.

Hicks follows an extensive description of the disaster itself with coverage of the various trials held to attempt to get to the truth about the matter with regards to fault and blame. The aggregious errors made by the replacement captain and the crew are brought to light by the combined efforts of the U.S. District Attorney's office, the department which would soon become the FBI, and the board that dealt with issues of the sea. After that, Hicks continues on to follow George Rogers, and the case quietly being built against him as far as the Morro Castle was concerned.

This book is well-written and includes a lot of interesting, gripping details. It has a certain feeling of being a detective story without getting totally side-tracked, never forgetting what the story is REALLY about. The author ties his strings together well, and in general I found the book to be a fascinating read.

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