Sunday, September 14, 2008


By Clive Cussler
& Paul Kemprecos
Berkley Novel
529 pages

Readability is a word you don’t trip over every day. Found in the umbrella definition of the word read, it more or less describes the ease or difficulty of any text to be deciphered. I bring this up because there are clearly books whose readability far outshines others such as all of Clive Cussler’s adventure novels. His writing is the literary equivalent of salted nuts, once you eat one, you are compelled to eat more. Beginning with page one of THE NAVIGATOR, I knew I was once again in friendly territory, as these pulp inspired thrillers have been entertaining readers for almost two generations ever since the paperback publication of Cussler’s THE PACIFIC VORTEX, his first Dirk Pitt adventure. That was way back in 1983; the hardback original having appeared the year before. The thing is it was the mass paperback editions that found, via word of mouth, Cussler’s audience and pulled them into becoming avid, lifelong fans.

I confess to coming in late on the fun. Several of my writing colleagues had been telling me for several years that Dirk Pitt was the “new” Doc Savage, that most famous of world trotting pulp adventurers. I procrastinated until the release of Pitt’s seventh outing, CYCLOPS. Why that one? Because the paperback cover sported a dirigible and I am just a bonafide sucker for airships. Once I’d read the book, I immediately realized how terrific the concept of Pitt and his NUMA (National Underwater & Marine Agency) was and went out and found the first six and devoured them speedily.

Like the pulps they evolved from, Cussler’s books are filled with exotic locations, dastardly villains and near super human heroes who always save mankind just in the nick of time. Each is filled with accurate historical backgrounds, suspense, action humor and imagination beyond belief. Now this kind of rampant success had one drawback. The demand for new stories was never-ending and poor Cussler was, after all, just one man. He could only write so much and still eat, drink and live his life like the rest of us. How could his publishers satisfy the clamor for more without killing the goose who in fact laid those golden eggs? The answer was another pulp standard, create a spin-off series and bring in another quality suspense writer.

SERPENT was published in 1999 and its credit reads, “Clive Cussler with Paul Kemprecos.” Kemprecos is a professional writer who had written several best selling novels featuring an underwater detective. Thus he was the ideal partner to work with Cussler. Together they invented another NUMA operative in Texas born Kurt Austin, who, although physically different than Pitt, is clearly cut from the same larger-than-life hero mold. There’s even a letter on the book’s first page introducing the readers to this new character and it is signed, Dirk Pitt. I have no inside clue as to how they work, but my guess would be that they develop a plot together and then Kemprecos goes off to do the actual writing. To date there have been six Kurt Austin adventures with THE NAVIGATOR being the seventh. All of them have been just as much fun as the Pitt books and this new one is certainly no exception.

These books are formulaic, but unlike other critics, I see that as their strength. Readers know what to expect and are rarely disappointed. THE NAVIGATOR begins three thousand years ago when King Solomon orders Phoenician captain to sail half way around the world to bury a sacred relic whose existence could cause havoc amongst the known civilizations of man. The tale then jumps forward to the last days of Thomas Jefferson’s Presidency and a mission assigned the famous explorer Meriwether Lewis and the beginnings of a secret organization known as the Artichoke Club.

What these divergent elements have in common is the puzzle that challenges Austin and his team as he comes to the rescue of a lovely archeologist named Carina Mechadi. In the Baghdad national museum, shortly after the American take-over, Mechadi finds a life-size statue of ancient sailor known as the Navigator. But before she can properly examine it, the statue is stolen by a group of mercenaries working for a mysterious tycoon named Balthazar. What is the secret of the statue and to what purpose does Balthazar intend to use it? THE NAVIGATOR is a convoluted, globe-spanning puzzle that will keep you turning pages late into the night. The pacing never lets up and with each new piece of the puzzle revealed, the excitement mounts exponentially until the slam-bang climax.

This is a good as modern pulp gets, and I’m hoping both Dirk Pitt and his pal, Kurt Austin, are going to be around for a long, long time. Pass the peanuts, please.

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