Sunday, January 22, 2012

Review: Deep Six, by Clive Cussler

New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984, pp. 432.

Clive Cussler's Deep Six (1984) can be thought of as something of a transitional work for the author, occupying a space in between his early, tightly focused, short novels like Raise the Titanic (1976), Vixen 03 (1978) and Night Probe (1981), and the later, sprawling, epic action-adventures which began with Cyclops (1986).

Even though I usually read right through Cussler's books after picking them up (back when I did read them), I started this one a few times before making much headway in it. This had much to do with Cussler's handling of the book's two main plot threads--the first, an investigation of a marine disaster in the northern Pacific, and the second, the mystery following the disappearance of the presidential yacht (with the President, Vice-President, Speaker of the House and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate all aboard). The first mystery engages Pitt and his friends from NUMA exclusively for the first third of the book or so. They only become involved with the second mystery in the book's middle, and play only a minor role in that investigation until the last third of the story, when the connection between the two series' of events finally becomes clear.

Filling the gap in between is a great deal of inside-the-Beltway intriguing among officials of the National Security Council and the Secret Service--which at times left me with the impression that I'd put down Cussler's book and picked up one by Tom Clancy instead. As is usually the case with these novels, Cussler's included, the portrait of D.C. struck me as simplistic and inauthentic, devoid as it is of the sausage factory-like quality of real-life politics. This is a Washington without lobbyists and political action-committees and revolving doors between industry and government, where politicians who take campaign contributions from shady special interests are "bad apples" and the "power elite" is described as "elected"--in short, a sanitized civics class textbook's version of governance (much as seen in other Cussler novels, admittedly, but more problematic here because of the foregrounding of this part of the story). The foreign politics are equally lacking in nuance, down to the foreign villains, who are, not unexpectedly, one-dimensional clichés that occasionally cross the line into racism, with the unsurprising result that the Soviet strategy comes off as astonishingly clumsy in stark counterpoint to the tactical and technological genius the KGB and its partners display in executing the scheme.

In short, others have done this stuff before and after and in many cases better, and it is poor compensation for what is missing in the earlier parts of the story, where in their limited appearances Pitt and company merely contribute to a couple of underwater searches (the second of them treated rather briefly), and engage in some mostly stationary detective work. We are more than halfway through the book before Pitt has his first brushes with the bad guys, and it is some time after that before he gets up to his usual antics. The result is a story that gets better as it goes along, with the last third providing exactly the kind of thing for which Cussler's readers come to his books, especially in the action-packed finale full of over-the-top heroics, flashy military hardware and creative anachronism as the clock ticks down to disaster. But getting to that point is occasionally a slog.

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