Clive Cussler

Trojan Odyssey, Clive Cussler

Berkley, 2003, 463 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-425-19932-0

I may not respect Clive Cussler’s fiction, but I do admire his chutzpah. It takes a special kind of audacity to perfect a thriller-writing formula and keep re-using it volume after volume, decade after decade. It takes even more self-confidence to to farm out that formula to a bunch of other writers, to found an oceanographic research institute, to write books about one’s adventures and yet keep on writing ever-more ludicrous thrillers. Every time I wonder why I keep reading Cussler’s novels, I just have to stop and remember that he seems to be the happiest author on Earth. Certainly the one who’s having the most fun with the money given to him by readers.

His latest non-bylined novel, Trojan Odyssey, is more of the same for Cussler, though with a couple of inevitable twists that suggest a new direction for the series. Fans of Cussler’s “Dirk Pitt” will remember the improbable revelation at the end of Valhalla Rising, when a couple of Pitt inheritors just walked out of the woodwork. Well, this development seems here to stay and endure, as the younger Pitt siblings take on a significant part of the action this time around.

The setup of the action will be instantly familiar: After two optional historical prologues that set up latter portions of the plot, yet another nautical disaster looms on the horizon: A fancy new nautical establishment is being threatened by a hurricane that doesn’t seem to know where it’s going.

(Have a look at Page 52 of the paperback edition: “Hurricane Lizzie is moving due east and accelerating.” Then have a look at pages 53: “Lizzie was also moving at a record pace westward across the ocean.” Later, on page 104, “Lizzie is still heading due east as if she’s travelling on a railroad track.” Later still, on page 116: “Hurricane Lizzie had moved westward to continue casting her death and destruction on the Island of the Dominican Republic and Haiti…”: “My thanks to the previous owner of my paperback edition, who underlined those passages before chucking the novel to a used-book sale!)

But have no fear, because Al Giordino, Pitt the elder and Pitt the youngers are on the case. The hotel is saved and the plot is free to start. A mysterious brown tide is causing all sorts of environmental mischief, and it’s up to the whole NUMA crew to discover something that is apparently invisible to everyone else. But don’t worry, because no one would quite believe the cause of the brown tide.

Despite a problem that could be solved with a couple of well-targeted Tomahawk missiles, it’s again up to all Pitts and friends to stop the menace, fight a reclusive multi-millionaire, go against a neo-primitive cult and still save the day for everyone involved. Oh, and discover the real location of Troy. (Because apparently, this kind of detail can be lost after a few thousand years.)

It amounts to an adventure that is not less ridiculous and yet no less satisfying than previous instalments. It has taken me, mind you, a long time to re-calibrate my ludicrousness sensors to Cussler’s looser standards of reality. But once you get to roll with the improbabilities, it’s hard to stop reading. There’s a panache, almost a wilful daring to Cussler’s method that would be unacceptable in any other context and yet ends up charming his long-time readers.

What’s more serious is the end of the novel, which suggests a pretty definitive passing of the torch from the elder to the younger generation of Pitt explorers. Only time, and the next novel, will tell whether the trademarked Dirk Pitt will be satisfied with a series of supporting cameos or will take a more direct part in the continuing saga of Cussler’s novels. I’m almost tempted to stop reading and leave him to his well-earned nuptial retirement.

But naah; how else would I get my fix of pure Cussler craziness?

Valhalla Rising, Clive Cussler

Berkley, 2001, 517 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-425-18571-0

I find it very difficult to be overly critical of Clive Cussler’s novels. Despite flaws that would doom any other writer, Cussler is just as daring as his alter-ego Dirk Pitt [TM] when comes the time to deliver the goods. Repetitive plots? Impossible technology? Ridiculous villains? Cartoonish action? Cookie-cutter characterization? Unbelievable twists? Everything-but-the-kitchen-sink plotting? It’s all pure Cussler routine, and after more than a dozen novels following the exact same template, it’s hard to be upset when the exact same features keep popping up from one book to another.

If you want a true look at Cussler’s ambitions, read his interview in the Dirk Pitt Revealed companion guide. Cussler, an old advertising veteran and businessman, knows exactly what he’s doing and has no shame in delivering what’s expected of him. He’s found both an audience and a niche: why should he even mess with the formula? His readership is, by now, so large that he can farm out the Dirk Pitt name to collaborators and still use his royalties to go on real-life treasure hunts. Bully to him: he’s living his life the way most people would like to… and what’s a small thing like literary quality to stand in his way?

Valhalla Rising is yet another thriller to come out of the vast Cussler Inc. Assembly line, and it begins exactly like the earlier ones: With a pair of historical prologues in which disaster strikes from a mysterious source. But before we can dwell too long on what this means for the rest of the novel, we’re off to the Pacific Ocean, where a dastardly plot ensures the sinking of a luxury liner. Is it the end for all passengers? Why, no, not when Dirk Pitt[TM] is around to perform a death-defying rescue. One thing leading to another, Pitt once again finds himself embroiled in a vast adventure that will lead him from the depths of the seas (twice) to a dogfight over Manhattan. Whew!

In doing so, Cussler also stretches the limits of permissible plotting. It’s not enough for him to give himself a cameo in his own work, he also has to act as a convenient deus ex machina to rescue his heroes from one impossible situation and lead them to the next plot coupon. (Mysteriously disappearing when it’s convenient to do so.) It’s not enough to give one big techno/historical reward to his characters: they get three or four of them at the same time, from evidence of American Viking settlements to the real-life Captain Nemo to quantum displacement technology that would revolutionize modern science if this was a novel that actually took science seriously. (No wonder that NUMA’s Turing-bashing AI barely raises any eyebrows when it’s featured as a supporting character.)

But all of the above pales in comparison to the end twist where, with less than ten pages left in the novel (SPOILERS!), a young man and his sister appear out of nowhere, lending a patina of of foreshadowing to Dirk Pitt’s[TM] book-long ruminations on age and his unsuccessful relationships. Yup, they’re his long-lost twin children, born of a mother everyone assumed dead. Cue a few hugs and the promise of a new generation of Pitt[TM] adventures. This is the type of thing that can destroy other writers’ books. With Cussler, it’s just another day on the job. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that Chutzpah! is the guy’s middle name.

It’s not all good, of course: Even allowing for Cussler’s customary craziness, Valhalla Rising feels a lot like Cussler’s last half-dozen novels in terms of writing: As Dirk Pitt’s adventures have gotten longer, the prose seems slower and the action scenes seem to balloon out of proportion: It’s now bad enough that you can just skim along the first lines of each paragraph and not miss anything important. Cussler could do forestry a favour and trim his novels by half just by tightening up his writing while leaving the plot alone. Heck, he may even discover that this makes up for faster-paced novels. In the meantime, it’s all to easy to gloss over the action scenes, picking up careful reading only when Pitt lets loose with one of his typical quips. Either Cussler’s writing keeps getting worse, or my patience is wearing thin.

Otherwise, well, it’s the same-old, same-old Cussler. There are nice passages (I particularly liked the Manhattan dogfight and the trip to the Jules Verne archives) and good lines of dialogue in this overwritten mess, but in most other aspects it’s a Cussler that’s equal to all others. Some will see this as a boon, others as a problem, but no one will be disappointed or surprised by what they’re getting. Cussler has made himself immune to parody by delivering it himself. And that’s why, in all the ways that count, it’s hard to be overly critical of any book sporting Dirk Pitt’s TM.

Atlantis Found, Clive Cussler

Berkley, 1999, 532 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-425-17717-3

In reviewing a Dirk Pitt[TM] adventure, there’s a tightrope path in between being an annoying spoilsport and a credulous fanboy. Cussler’s fiction is certainly not respectable litterature. Even allowing for the usual sub-standard latitudes given to genre fiction, Dirk Pitt’s adventures have serious problems. The structure of Cussler’s last dozen novels follow more or less the same template, down to the historical prologue. The breakneck pacing actually hides remarkably long stretches of nothingness. His protagonists are so invulnerable as to defy common sense. The series of whoppers he has managed to uncover in each successive novel have an uncanny way of disappearing before the next one.

But that’s just your reviewer being a boring pedant: It’s not as if Cussler’s flaws aren’t already obvious to anyone who’s read even two of his novels. Find someone who has read more than two, however, and you’re likely to find someone who has learnt to enjoy the books on their own terms, as two-fisted adventures with some crunchy historical speculation. In fact, find someone who has read a third Cussler novel and you’re likely to find someone on their way to read them all: While a steady diet of Dirk Pitt adventures would be brain-damaging, there’s nothing wrong with a yearly shot of Cussler craziness.

And there’s plenty of craziness in Atlantis Found for sure. Heck, even the title spoils very little: While stalwart Dirk Pitt indeed goes on to find the titular Atlantis, you won’t believe what else stands in his way: Modern-day Nazis, shadowy assassins, rotten weather, doomsday plans, nanotechnology and maybe even matrimony. Whew! As Cussler fans have come to expect, there’s the requisite archaeological expeditions, car chases, delicious dialogue, Clive Cussler cameo and a big race against time before Something Really Bad Happens. Good good fun.

One could conceivably point out that the book hovers even more dangerously that usual above flat-out auto-parody, but that would be both self-obvious and, of course, annoying. Much like one could point out the scientific mistake in describing nanotechnology as a science with the potential to build things using new metals (P.243: er, no; it’s molecular technology, not atomic!): once again that would be criticizing the tree and ignoring the forest. After Cussler’s inclusion of a secret Lunar base in Cyclops, it’s hard to get worked up about his bad science or nonsensical plot developments.

Heck, it’s difficult not to stand up and cheer considering the amount and quality of outlandish material crammed into Atlantis Found. Even casual Antarctic buffs will squeal in glee at the surprise appearance of the Snow Cruiser late in the book. Plus, you won’t believe what’s in the Nazi relics box (nor what happens to it). Ironically enough, all of this clever intellectual madness makes Cussler’s exposition scenes far more interesting than his action sequences; it’s easy to flip through the pages as Dirk Pitt(R) and friends mow down yet another squad of baddies, but the quiet discussions in which historical secrets are revealed are worth a careful read.

True, internal consistency doesn’t match from one novel to another, the characters haven’t changed in decades (though some material late in this book may lead to romantic developments), the books keep expanding without good reasons besides repetitive action padding and the repetitive plotting is really starting to grate. But it’s all good fun: Atlantis Found even has this winking quality that also works on a second level for those jaded readers who know better.

It sure looks as if Cussler is having fun too. His cameo appearance in the novel is amusing, and from what we can read elsewhere on the web, he’s busy re-investing his royalties in classic cars and underwater archaeological expeditions. Goodness knows there are worse ways to be a best-selling author… even if the latest flood of “Clive Cussler collaborations” suggests that the need to mint royalty money may outweigh his respectability as a writer.

Um. Did I just associate “Clive Cussler” with “respectability as an author”? My mistake!

The Sea Hunters, Clive Cussler & Craig Dirgo

Simon & Schuster, 1996, 364 pages, C$32.50 hc, ISBN 0-684-83027-2

Even the most casual reader has probably heard of Clive Cussler. Author of almost fifteen novels, Cussler has enjoyed a sting of bestsellers starring an delightfully wisecracking hero named Dirk Pitt. Starting with the success of Raise the Titanic!, Cussler has become the foremost writer of adventures today.

I’m not much of a fan of Cussler, even though I’ve read most Dirk Pitt adventures. It’s what I call fast-food novels; highly entertaining, but mostly empty. It doesn’t help that almost all Pitt novels are precisely constructed over the same framework; they do tend to be repetitive after a while. But at a rate of, oh, once a year or two, Cussler’s books are usually a good way to pass the time.

What most Cussler fans didn’t know was that Cussler himself shares some of his literary alter ego’s adventurous traits. As Cussler himself explains, he used some of Raise the Titanic‘s royalties to fund his first small-scale expedition to find lost shipwrecks. It didn’t go well, but Cussler was hooked. Since then, he goes out at least once a year to look for lost ships. Cussler is in the shipwreck business for the excitement, not the money. He doesn’t take souvenirs of the shipwrecks, or loot his finds. When he finds the wreck, he report the positions to everyone. Local authorities then may choose to raise the wreck or not. The Sea Hunters is a collection of his most memorable adventures.

There are approximately ten shipwrecks covered in The Sea Hunters, and each account is preceded by a fictionalized account of the last moments of each ship. (Much like the prologue of each Cussler book, in fact.) To be entirely fair, I skimmed over most of these historical dramas. While they’re useful to the context, they rarely bring something essential to the discovery stories. (Since each search account is written at the first person by Cussler, the historical docu-dramas might have been Dirgo’s contributions to the book.)

In any case, the accounts of Cussler’s travels are the real treasures of The Sea Hunters. Cussler takes us with him through research and discovery, enabling us to taste some of the excitement of these sea hunts. Cussler explains that not only are there a lot of lost ships, but most of them can be found cheaply (if not always easily) provided a few dozen hours of careful research.

Some of the highlights of The Sea Hunters involve a lost ship eventually found under a parking lot, another destroyed barely hours before Cussler got to it and another adventure where they search for a sunken… train. But the most rollicking and hilarious adventure is wisely kept for the finale, where Cussler and his band of merry adventurers go against nothing less that the French government, secret services and a French frigate! This part alone contains several laugh-aloud moments.

It’s easy to see where Dirk Pitt got his talent for witty repartee: Cussler knows how to tell a story, and this book shows it. The contemporary search accounts are compulsively readable, and rarely dull.

The Sea Hunters offer a look at an author that’s definitely not your usual novelist. I’ve become more of a Cussler fan after reading this, and that’s probably the nicest thing I can say about this already memorable book. Cussler fans might want to take a look. Other might find this a good introduction to Cussler.