People I trusted — even people I’m related to or happen to have vowed lifelong marriage to — said I should try a Clive Cussler book.
Not for the writing, they all admitted. Nor for the characterization. But definitely for the story; he tells a good story. And mostly for the explosions.
As my mom explained, “In every book, he gets this top-of-the-line cutting-edge equipment and vehicles, and smashes them all to smithereens.”
So I found a Cussler book, 2004’s Trojan Odyssey. I skipped most of the prologue when it became apparent that he’d written it in about fifteen minutes when his editor called and said, “We need a prologue to recap the Trojan War and the Odyssey. And,” the editor added, “I’m scheduled for a root canal so I can’t edit it, so do your best and remember to run it through spell-check.”
It was tedious and badly-written. So I went on to the actual story. Little things bothered me, like how the underwater scene featured a diver whose only visible physical characteristics (as stated by the text) were her gray eyes and a strand of red hair; but later her companion saw her smile at him. How did he see her smile? Did her gray eyes smile? Did the strand of red hair seem especially happy? But Mom said that if I was going to get through the book, I had to overlook that for the sake of the story. Fine.
But then he dropped in a huge chunk of backstory, to the point that I was getting worried about the diver’s air supply as she paddled around the reef waiting for the story to start back up. Then he mentioned that she and her brother, although twins, were not identical. Well, um, they wouldn’t be since they aren’t even the same sex, right? I mean, in 2004, you could Google that, right?
Then… then… this character returns to the underwater laboratory where she and her brother are working. And she produces a lemon meringue pie that she baked in the microwave.
You can’t bake a pie in the microwave. And you can’t make meringue in humid air. Like, you know, underwater.
That was it. I couldn’t take it any more. But maybe, I thought, it was because it was a later book and Cussler just got lazy. I should give him a fair trial and find an earlier book, when he was trying harder.
Iceberg was written in 1975. It was a Dirk Pitt Adventure, and promised to be true and vintage Clive Cussler. I started it with high hopes, which were dashed by the top of the second page. The opening scene, which was a bizarre sexy horror scene, turned out to be part of a book somebody was reading, with no bearing on the plot. It was just a sensational way to start the story. The only stupider cop-out is, “And then he woke up.” Realizing that I had little to live for, I plowed grimly through the book just to say I’d read it.
What a terrible experience it was.
Dirk Pitt. Tall, tanned, hard-bodied, green-eyed. Debonair, ruthless, brilliant, sexy. And certainly not a thinly-veiled fantasy version of the author himself. (I’ve been told that in later books, Cussler actually writes himself into the stories by name. I guess that dispels the suspicion that he sees himself as Dirk. “Of course I’m not Dirk Pitt! We were seen together in the same book on page 238!”)
Characters are constantly remarking on Dirk’s prowess, his sex appeal, his understanding of human nature, his way with the women. We readers need these reminders, because I sure wasn’t picking up on it from the story itself. I thought he was a chauvinist, a painfully bad flirt, all too willing to kill people on the slightest pretext, and unfortunately fond of very clumsy banter.
But then, all of the dialogue is horrible. Everybody says their lines like ninth graders reciting a script. One typical exchange goes like this:
“A flamethrower? Do you realize what you’re suggesting?”
“You’re damned right I do,” Pitt said. “Right down to the violent blast of searing flame, the hideous swish of the jets, the terrible smoke from melted flesh. Like it or not, a flamethrower is the logical answer.”
That’s right. Pitt, the hard-bitten Air Force major (oh, he’s an Air Force major) who falls asleep at poetry parties and claims that the only magazine he reads is Playboy, launches into monologues that include lines like “hideous swish of the jets.” Routinely. They all talk like that.
Or this, during a scene where they’re trapped on a boat in heavy fog, and there’s a larger boat circling them with the intention to kill them:
“A hydrofoil boat depends on its high speed to sustain its weight. The foils travel through the water the same as the wings of an aircraft travel through air. Its greatest asset is speed, but its greatest limitation is maneuverability. In simple English, a hydrofoil can’t turn worth a damn.”
Mind you, Pitt (the pilot, remember) is telling this to Admiral Sandecker of the U.S. Navy, who presumably should know this kind of thing already.
This book had a lot of plot, but it was kind of murky most of the time. Mostly what happens is that Dirk gets himself almost killed, concocts some elaborate, violent escape on the spur of the moment, and then spends the next two pages explaining the bad guys’ motives and whatever new plot point he conveniently just figured out.
Women love Dirk Pitt. The secretary tells him mournfully that she’d love to be involved with him, but he never notices her. He proceeds to spout off her height, weight, eye color, waist size, bust size, and the fact that she has two moles behind her left ear. And she, shocked and terrified that he has taken such minute stock of her, calls the cops on him. Haha! No, she gets misty-eyed and said that she didn’t know he cared.
(I assume that in later books, Dirk actually goes to bed with some of these women onscreen. In this early book, it’s just talked about. Frequently.)
People trust him so instinctively that he persuades one man — a doctor — to help him kill someone whom he claimed was an assassin. Later, the same doctor observes that Pitt merely wounds but doesn’t kill the second assassin, and says, “You love life. That will be your defeat.” One of those helpful reminders for readers who otherwise would have missed that virtue of Pitt’s.
The guy kills or injures people on the slightest suspicion that they might be after him. He takes no pleasure in it, though, so that’s how you know he’s a good guy.
(I was also highly annoyed by the patronizing attitude toward women — but this was 1975 and it is a man’s book, so I’ll just let that rot in history.)
Even a slam-bang scene where he knocks a jet out of the sky with a crippled helicopter wasn’t big enough to overcome the hundreds of little irritations I was dealing with by the end of the book. For instance, he had so much self-control that he allowed the bad guy to beat him nearly to death without defending himself; but when someone introduced himself by a ridiculous-sounding name, “Pitt couldn’t stop an incredulous laugh.” So much for steely self-control.
Or near the end of the book, his entire face is swathed in bandages, with only his eyes showing; yet two lines later, he “smiles.” Apparently it’s some mystical ability that people of his bloodline have, to communicate smiles with their mouths completely covered up.
He sneaks through the upper catwalks of Disneyland in a Big Bad Wolf costume, but the costume never impedes his agility or blocks his view; I kept going back to see if he’d taken it off sometime and I just missed it. Evidently even bulky costumes don’t mess with Dirk Pitt.
Sometimes Cussler even used the wrong word. At one point, Pitt makes a makeshift compass out of a metal pin and a silk sash (very good scene). He drops the pin, and spends “several useless minutes searching for it.” But he finds it again, so the minutes weren’t useless. Frantic, maybe. “Precious minutes,” to be cliched. But not useless. Later, the author says that a man was wearing a white shirt “decorated by a black silk tie.” No, not decorated. Maybe “complemented by” or “paired with,” but not decorated.
But come on, I was warned about all that. What about the story? What about the explosions? Okay, fine. The action scenes are great; and it’s hard to write good action scenes. The premise was interesting (a group of people trying to take over small South American countries for the good of the world). The descriptions of Iceland, while gratuitous to the plot, were engaging enough that now I want to see Iceland.
As for the plot, it was certainly dense and twisty. Eventually I gave up keeping it straight.
After all, if Cussler wasn’t trying, why should I?