New York, NY: Bantam Books, 1978, pp. 364.
The real point of transition in Clive Cussler's Dirk Pitt series from the small-scale novels of the early years (like The Mediterranean Caper and Raise the Titanic!) to the large-scale plots of his later books (like Sahara) was Deep Six, but the much earlier Vixen 03 still represents a tentative step in that direction. It is much more compact, but has something of the later book's divided plot structure, starting with two different threads that eventually tie together - Pitt's happening upon mysterious aircraft wreckage while on vacation in Colorado's Sawatch mountains with his girlfriend Loren Smith (introduced here for the first time); and the battle of the South African government against African-American expatriate Hiram Lusana's anti-apartheid guerrilla group African Army of the Revolution, in which each seeks the support of the United States.
The story has its share of implausibilities, particularly at the levels of geopolitics and technology. The D.C. hijinks, a frequent weak point of technothriller writing, have members of the House of Representatives making American foreign policy in a simplified, sanitized near-vacuum. (The soap operatic sleaze of the blackmail attempt against Loren merely underlines the absence of the real sleaze of practical politics from Cussler's portrait of the Beltway.1) The prospect of the U.S.'s supporting Communist-backed South African guerrillas against their government in the midst of the Cold War seems more like a rightist fear of radical (or radical chic) influence over American foreign policy than a plausible extrapolation. (We see Hiram Lusana lobbying in D.C. - with the help of Hollywood starlet Felicia Collins - but no Jack Abramoff-type making Pretoria's case, with the help of the Hollywood connections that brought us Red Scorpion.2) The Quick Death virus that ends up playing a key role in the plot is a rather convenient and casual creation, as its very name indicates. (It kills exposed humans in minutes, and renders infected areas uninhabitable for centuries - but while being unkillable by anything else, is totally and instantly neutralized by immersion in water.)
In fairness, though, authorial rigor in these areas (let alone insight into the great affairs of the day) is rarely the attraction of the Dirk Pitt novel. Rather what compels is the adventure Cussler spins out of them, and this book certainly provides its fair share of undersea exploration, nautical mystery and over-the-top action. It is the South African plot line which initially supplies the last, but the relatively tight writing and fast pace soon enough bring on the convergence. And this culminates in a climax that may have lost something of the retro appeal it had at the time of the book's publication, but which is sufficiently intricate, inventive and spectacular to remain one of Cussler's more memorable thirty-five prolific years on.3
1. One can also see the blackmail plot, like the heavier accent on sex in Cussler's '70s-era work, as a concession to the fashions of the period (and perhaps, the influence of a certain British predecessor), preceding our era of celibate action heroes.
2. It is worth remembering that Vixen 03 appeared the very same year as Graham Greene's classic spy novel The Human Factor, which offered a very different, and much more realistic, take on the situation.
3. This would be a matter of certain Defense Department procurement decisions which will be immediately apparent to any reader familiar with the 600-Ship Navy program initiated in the 1980s.