I like Clive Cussler. Part of me wants to be Clive Cussler, or at least his son. This is a guy who turned his back on a successful career in advertising to follow his passions and became one of the world’s most successful novelists — and that success allowed him to hunt for shipwrecks and have all kinds of spectacular adventures.
And the books that made him famous — what fun. I devoured Cussler’s Dirk Pitt novels all through my teens and into my 20s. Action, adventure, ancient mysteries, conspiracies, comic-book villains, humour … it was like a more far-fetched version of James Bond, only with archaeology. Dirk Pitt works for NUMA, the National Underwater and Marine Agency, sort of like a wetter version of NASA. I ate it up.
But by the time my 30s rolled around, and Dirk Pitt found Atlantis, I finally realized something: Clive Cussler is a pretty terrible writer.
Not that it really matters. Nobody reads these books because they’re great literature; we want to read about a smirking hero blowing things up and getting the girl. And I guess I always knew Cussler was no Steinbeck. For one thing, he has a tendency to lean on expository dialogue, like (and I’m just inventing a Cusslerish passage here): “Would you like a drink? Perhaps a glass of red wine, like the one you had the day I met you in the genetics research lab at Stanford, where you joined my team to help develop new mind-control techniques for a secret branch of the U.S. Navy.” Yes, you can groan, and yes, there are lines like that in these books.
And Cussler has this tendency to forget his own continuity, which I find a tad annoying. For example, in one book, Night Probe (one of my favourite, actually), he has Canada join the United States as one super-nation. This, though, is ignored in every subsequent book.
I’d say the series jumped the shark when Dirk Pitt’s grown twin children, Dirk Pitt Jr. (seriously) and Summer Pitt, suddenly popped up. I admire Cussler’s admission that his main character was getting too old to be an action hero (Pitt’s service in Vietnam dates him), but the explanation for where these children came from defied logic. I won’t spoil it here … wait, I will. They were the children Pitt fathered with a woman he didn’t have time to sleep with, because they were on an underwater island and her crazy father was trying to kill him, and she died instead. Seriously.
Anyway. I haven’t read the last half-dozen Dirk Pitt novels. I tried one, and it was loaded with over-the-top bad stereotypes about the Chinese. Cussler — actually, the books are now written by his son, Dirk Cussler, seriously, who gets his name in smaller print on the covers — wrote the dialogue in a weird version of pidgin Chinese-English. Stupid.
I should note that Cussler has two spinoff series, written by other authors: The NUMA Files, by Paul Kemprecos, which are actually pretty good, if not very bright, and The Oregon Files, by Jack DuBrul (and originally by Craig Dirgo), which are also pretty good. And Cussler wrote a non-Pitt novel last year, The Chase, which I found to be a fun romp. He has written children’s books and co-authored two fascinating books about searching for shipwrecks.
But back to the Pitt books. I was at the library today, and found the latest one: Arctic Drift. And I signed it out. I’m going to read it, only because it has to do with the Franklin Expedition, one of my favourite subjects. Of course, in true Cussler style, John Franklin had some rare mineral aboard the Erebus, and the search is on for the shipwreck … this was also the plot of Cussler’s breakthrough novel, Raise the Titanic, in which Dirk Pitt raises the Titanic and sails it into New York harbour. I am not making this up.
I’ll let you know if this book gets finished. If it doesn’t, I’ll probably watch the Dirk Pitt movie, Sahara, again. Yes, I’m the guy who really liked Sahara.
The Oregon Files