Pocket, 1999, 388 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-02322-5
Sometimes, I can’t even figure out why I’m reviewing a book. Craig Dirgo’s The Einstein Papers is a perfect example: Today, eight years after its publication, I doubt that even the author cares about it. It’s the exemplary paperback thriller, literally made in the Clive Cussler mold of action-adventure novels. It has no deep message, no memorable scenes, nothing beyond an intent to entertain its reader well enough to convince him to buy the next book in the series.
In fact, the publishing matrix in which this novel is set is far more interesting that the book itself. For years, Clive Cussler has been shaping the thriller field with a series of formulaic novels that are never particularly exciting, but always consistent. The formula works in that it provides the framework for the witty dialogue, exciting action sequences and silly premises that form the texture of the modern American beach thriller. Even when followed to the letter, the formula still manages to entertain. Heck, Hollywood is based on the same concept. It may not be good art, but it’s great business in this age of extruded entertainment products.
This brings us to Craig Dirgo’s Einstein Papers insofar as the novel is Dirgo’s attempt to file off the serial numbers of the Cussler formula and run with it under his own name. (Don’t think that Cussler doesn’t approve: they collaborated on two books before The Einstein Papers, and two more after that.) The rugged middle-aged hero, John Taft, is nothing but Dirk Pitt under a new name (indeed, several in-jokes make the filiation abundantly clear. At the end of Chapter 23, when questioned about his name, Taft answers “Dirk Pitt”.) His job as an anti-terrorist expert is designed to sustain a series of books —though the underwater aspects quickly pops up again in the finest NUMA tradition. Even the relationship he’s got with a team of supporting characters, including the requisite sarcastic non-WASP sidekick, is nothing but setup for handy helpers in book after book. Obviously, Dirgo has learned from the master.
But what Dirgo still hasn’t figured out is the formula. The book begins with a too-long set-piece deep in China, an escape sequence which acts as a stuffy prologue to the book’s real story: a hunt for papers left by Albert Einstein, papers which (predictably enough) could mean a terrifying new weapon. Less terrifying should it stay in the hands of the United States, more terrifying should it go to those all-purpose-evil Chinese. The papers are discovered, fall into the wrong hands, and the chase begins. Meanwhile, the Middle East is once more thrown in chaos. The action starts and sputters, finally going along merrily to its expected end.
(There’s also some silly subplot about the weapon being developed while waiting for the crucial papers, as if scientific research could hop along on government funding and a missing theorem. But if you’re reading The Einstein Papers for an accurate portrait of the scientific/military establishment, boy have you got the wrong book in your hands. And oooh, let’s not talk about the geopolitics of the novel. No, let’s not.)
It all amounts to, well, an ordinary beach thriller. Nothing crazy, nothing wild, just the equivalent of an action film bound in a paperback format. It passes through the brain like a breeze, temporarily displacing lighter concerns but ultimately leaving no trace. As a piece of literature, it’s a non-entity. I can’t imagine that it took much more than a few weeks to write: certainly, the editing appears to have been completed in minutes.
As a piece of Dirgo’s career, it’s may remain a failed experiment. Though he has recently written another solo John Taft novel (Tremors), most of his latest books have been “collaborations” with Clive Cussler. It’s a career, I suppose, somewhere in the gravitational pull of another author, unable to escape even when writing solo novels. I may not be able to figure out why I’m reviewing this novel, but I hope there’s at least five digits on the reason why Dirgo wrote it.