In defense of Clive Cussler

Sunday, March 18, 2018 - 3:46pm

Clive Cussler was my first favorite author. I’m not embarrassed, and I don’t think I should be. For those unfamiliar with Cussler’s work, he is a prolific novelist (and underwater explorer) who has written more than seventy action and adventure books. He’s not a high-brow literary darling by any means; his style and content is more like a lovechild of Stephen Coonts and Stephen King.

There are many reasons not to like Cussler’s books. It’s chock-full of flat female characters (who are always thin and conveniently beautiful and single), and the few non-white characters are either villains, have very small roles or both. Still, there’s something about Cussler’s writing that draws the reader in. It’s not that I really wanted to stay up on Wednesday until 2 a.m. rereading a book about the lost tomb of Genghis Khan, but there I was.

Cussler has a formula, and it works: Charismatic scientist, plus witty sidekick, plus vintage cars, plus beautiful women, plus shipwrecks, plus nefarious criminals plotting something big. It’s like James Bond, but better (I should be honest: I’ve never seen a James Bond movie).  It’s got car chases! It’s got nonpartisan political intrigue! The historic and factual foundations are thin at best and often nonexistent! It also has very few explicit sex scenes (Cussler co-authored many of his books with his son), little social resonance and boatloads (get it?) of dramatic tension. There’s even a very well-funded federal bureau of underwater investigation, which is probably more fantastical now than it was in the ’70s, when Cussler first invented the fictional National Underwater and Marine Agency (a cross between NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). Interestingly, Cussler used the royalties from his books to found a private non-profit with the same name in 1979.

Cussler has a quite a few series’ that he works on: The Dirk Pitt Adventures, The NUMA Files, The Oregon Files, The Isaac Bell Adventures and The Fargo Adventures. Each one follows the hijinks of a different cast of characters: a freighter that’s actually a high tech mystery-solving ship, early 20th-century naval detective or a pair of treasure hunters. Cussler is at his best with his first series, The Dirk Pitt Adventures. Dirk is a George Clooney lookalike, as well as a scientist and an adventurer. He lives in an airplane hangar outside of Washington, D.C. with his collection of old cars. His girlfriend is a young, idealistic congresswoman (though conveniently that relationship never stops him from some sort of romantic involvement with the stunning women who pop up as he fights evil across the globe). In short, he’s cool. The women want him and the men want to be him.

The Dirk Pitt Adventures are predictable yet thrillingly ridiculous. One particularly absurd plot revolves around a family of genetically-engineered neo-Nazis who plan to destabilize an ice shelf in order to wipe out everyone except themselves. They hope to sail around on huge, luxurious cruise ships until they can repopulate the world. Of course, it’s up to Dirk to save humanity, and he does. He always, always does. The stakes are so insanely high that they become low; it’s never whether Dirk will be the hero, it’s how — and the how is incredibly entertaining.

I first started listening to Clive Cussler audiobooks with my mom. Even when we were only in the car for a few minutes, we’d pop in a CD and become absorbed with the adventures Cussler describes (read, of course, by the one and only Scott Brick). This tradition became a way to connect without speaking, a shared fantasy world that we could inhabit and then discuss at length. Last week, I listened to a Dirk Pitt novel using OverDrive, an audiobook and ebook app, and for a moment I was 11-years-old again, thrilled at the novelty of riding in the front seat and dreading having to get out of the car and step back into the real world.

What I realized recently is that my mom was definitely not a Cussler fan before I began checking out his books and audiobooks from the local library. My mom likes nonfiction about Buddhism and neuroscience. She likes Alice Hoffman, Elizabeth Strout and Mary Oliver. Whatever the predicted Clive Cussler fan demographic is, my mom is not in it. Rather, it was for me that she put up with these hours and hours of audiobooks, a concession that eventually led to a genuine (if limited) enjoyment of adventure novels. Clive Cussler is certainly not for everyone, but he deserves a chance. I’ll always love his books. He managed to engineer a bridge between the childhood days when my mother read books out loud to me and now, when the two of us read separately, silently, side by side.