Thursday, February 10, 2011

Reflections on the Dirk Pitt Series

I first encountered Clive Cussler circa 1993 through Sahara, which was then his latest novel. I went right through it and subsequently tracked down every other novel Cussler published before it, then went on to follow his career closely for a good many years afterward. I enjoyed virtually all of his books, a good many of the earlier ones nearly as much as Sahara (especially 1986's Cyclops and 1988's Treasure).

With their big, exciting plots encompassing wild historical theories and high-stakes geopolitical games, their abundance of gimmicks (like cool high-tech toys), their plenitude of over-the-top, cinematic action, their unflappable James Bondian protagonist and colorful James Bondian villains, and their sense of humor, I found Cussler's novels a lot of fun--and also, a model for the kind of story I was then aspiring to write. (Matthew Reilly would be an even closer fit in many respects, but he hadn't even published his first book yet.)

The inelegant, often cliché-ridden prose, the one-dimensional characters--these things only started mattering to me later on, by which time the author's tendency to repeat himself to diminishing returns would have been enough to reduce my interest, even at a less discriminating point in my history as a reader. Of course, this may have been inevitable. As of the time of this writing, Dirk Pitt's adventures have been in print for thirty-seven years, and despite the use of a rather large bag of tricks, Cussler's hero's aged enough that Pitt's grown-up kids now get in on the action. Far from letting go gracefully, or at least taking a break every now and then, Cussler kept the books coming, despite his declining enthusiasm for them (Cussler himself confessing to boredom with his creation in at least one interview).

Indeed, Cussler stepped up production sharply--through a turn to literary sharecropping on a massive scale.1 Where action thriller writers are concerned, only Tom Clancy compares with Cussler's prolific involvement in "co-authored" books to which his principal contribution seems to be his brand name. This includes not only every Dirk Pitt novel to follow 2001's Valhalla Rising (the byline of which is shared with his son Dirk), but the NUMA File series cowritten with Paul Kemprecos, the Oregon Files novels written with Craig Dirgo and Jack DuBrul, the Isaac Bell novels (cowritten with Justin Scott from the second book on) and the Fargo Adventures written with Grant Blackwood (who also "co-authored" Clancy's latest, Dead or Alive)--some twenty-five novels in five series, a considerable output even before counting his foray into nonfiction (like the two-book Sea Hunters series, also cowritten with Dirgo).2 At this point co-authored books account not only for virtually all of Cussler's output in the past decade, but for a majority of the books he has published in his four decade career (27 of 46 books of all sorts).3

That others keep on buying the books, being disappointed, complaining online and then buying the next book, again and again and again (enough to keep Cussler on the bestseller lists), astonishes me. Rather than nostalgia, I find the whole phenomenon a depressing sign of the times.

1. From the 1970s through the first half of the 1990s, Cussler published roughly one novel every two years (twelve from 1973 to 1994), where now two to three new books appear bearing the Cussler name annually, a staggering 400 percent rise in production.
2. As might be expected, I found the 1999 Numa Files novel Serpent--the first of the coauthored novels--lackluster, and while I still read Atlantis Found (2000) and Valhalla Rising, 2003's Trojan Odyssey was simply unreadable, and haven't bothered to return to the Cussler brand since.
3. The release of two more co-authored books (the Oregon Files novel The Jungle, the Fargo Adventure The Kingdom) has already been announced for this year, further increasing their share of the total (to 29 of 48). This should be considered a low estimate, however, given that not all "co-authored" books are announced as such.


Ian Sales said...

Cussler consciously set out to ape Alistair Maclean's novels, and it shows - the early novels are readable and exciting action/adventures. Round about Sahara, it all started to go downhill - the historical mystery which opens each book became irrelevant to the main plot, Pitt & Giordano turned increasingly implausible as characters (taking out a two squads of Spetsnaz having been shot half-a-dozen times each in one novel), and the quality of the prose - never great - plumetted. And then he started farming out the books to writers-for-hire... I gave up on them ten years ago.

Nader said...

Thanks for writing Mr. Sales.

I'm agreed about the historical mystery aspect becoming more tangential to the plots of his novels about that time.

I've read some MacLean, but hadn't considered the parallel-though now that I think about it, I do see the parallels (in the course of their careers as well as their fictional output).

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