Thursday, July 19, 2018

Review: Trojan Odyssey, by Clive Cussler

New York: Putnam, 2003, pp. 496.


Clive Cussler's Trojan Odyssey marks the end of an era in many ways. Not only is it the case that this is the last Dirk Pitt novel on which Clive Cussler's name appears without a coauthor. It is also the first novel to include Dirk Jr. and Summer in the adventure, just as the single, adventurous Dirk Sr. puts that part of his life behind him, marrying his longtime girlfriend Loren Smith and taking over the directorship of NUMA from Admiral Sandecker. These changes of life will pretty much keep him out of the field (in both those ways), and pave the way for the principal "Dirk Pitt" of the novels to be the son from this point on.

Naturally, I would like to be able to say that the sequence of "Dirk Pitt Sr." novels goes out strong. Alas, the first time I tried to read it I didn't make it past page one hundred and fifty. I suppose that part of the problem was that I had become less forgiving of Cussler's literary weaknesses in the decade since I started the series. However, it is also the case that this part of the book--which consists mostly of an ocean resort and the Pitt twins being inconveniently in the way of a hurricane--comes across as both overfamiliar to readers of his previous books, and agonizingly slow.

Hoping that the rest of the book would be better, I later returned to it and pressed on. Having done so I can say that the pace and interest do pick up in the second half of the story. Still, while the story gets better, it does not get very much better. Despite being shorter than many of the preceding Pitt epics, ending on just page 485 in the hardback edition, it felt overlong, with many later bits excessively drawn out.

Moreover, that sense of overfamiliarity remained. Cussler's previous novels are not merely referenced (as would be appropriate in a transitional work like this), but recycled. There is a lot of Sahara here in particular--for instance, in the spread of conspicuous, rapidly spreading, ocean-killing pollution from a mysterious source ("brown crud" in the Caribbean), and the dispatch of Pitt, Al and Rudi aboard a disguised high-tech vessel to check it out early in the story. Same as in that other novel, the subsequent adventure involves a river journey, an old colonial fortress, an ecologically destructive high-tech facility incorporating cutting-edge energy technology, action underground, and a party of foreigners enslaved by the baddie.

Where the book does not reuse familiar elements, it is often simply hokey--as with the holographic pirates Pitt encounters off the coast of Nicaragua, which as a deception intended to keep people from the area would embarrass the clumsiest Scooby-Doo villain, or the unmasking of a central figure in the middle of a Congressional hearing, which likewise comes across as something out of a Scooby-Doo episode. One does not expect, or usually get, much logic in the schemes of supervillains in novels like these, but the connection of their revolutionary technological breakthrough with a plan to change the climate of much of the Earth seemed especially dubious. At the same time, while the novel's exercise in fringe history is one of Cussler's more intriguing--an alternative theory of the Trojan War based on the work of Iman Wilkens--we never quite get a full explanation of the revelations (like why a Druidess is buried in an elaborate tomb in the West Indies).

And the vigor of the handling leaves much to be desired, Dirk and Al's Central American adventure paling next to what we saw in earlier installments (not least, the West African adventure Cussler recycled so much of here). When the narration remarks Pitt and Giordino feeling more tired than they can remember ever being, this comes across as a reflection of their aging bodies, rather than the author's topping his earlier efforts. Perhaps advancing age is also the reason for the painful slowness of the protagonists to grasp what has become obvious to the reader--the secret the villain conceals behind the unusual attire, the source of the brown crud.

Meanwhile, NUMA's next generation--Dirk Jr. and Summer--have little interest in themselves, and what Cussler does with them this time around, at least, is not terribly interesting either. Nor does it contribute meaningfully to the sense of transition the rest of the book seems to strive for. Rather than their being given a chance to come into their own, which would give us a sense of the torch being passed, they come off as marginal and hapless in the tale's bigger events.

Cussler partially redeems himself in the final chapter, which manages to be suitably charming, and takes some of the sting out of what came before--but just as Loren Smith may feel that she has waited longer than she should have to make her longtime relationship with Dirk legal, the reader may come away feeling that this should all have happened a few novels earlier.

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