In the late 70s, I was wandering the stacks of our local library and came across a book with a dramatic title: Raise the Titanic! I had – like many other people – something of a fascination with the Titanic, so this, along with the cover showing the huge liner rising from the deeps, grabbed my attention.
This was the first novel of the genre "techno-thriller" I remember reading; it's possible I read one such earlier, but I can't say for sure. What I can say is that Raise the Titanic grabbed me and held me riveted throughout, starting from some mysterious set of people on a mission we did not know, and a scene in the doomed Titanic, then flashing forward to the present time to a mission of international importance… and the sudden appearance of a man named Dirk Pitt, Special Projects Director for the National Underwater and Marine Agency (NUMA). The plot took twists and turns, alternately sending our hero researching old mysteries and in sudden, deadly conflict with unknown adversaries, and then down to the depths to accomplish the seemingly impossible task of the title. I finished feeling stunned and amazed, and Clive Cussler became one of the few authors whose name I knew and looked for, purchasing the ones I came across in paperback and, eventually, buying the new ones in hardcover.
Clive Cussler had a positive talent for finding, or inventing, ancient mysteries and then fleshing them out so they felt real, and thus making this old history suddenly important to the main characters. And everything would be done with spectacular style. There was nothing small or ordinary about Dirk Pitt's world; he lived between Jacques Cousteau and James Bond, somehow larger than life and always in the middle of danger that he didn't invite … but would tackle head-on for the sake of his country, his friends, or – often – a beautiful damsel in distress.
All of Dirk Pitt's adventures followed a clear general formula: an opening featuring a look at the historic event – nearly always associated with the ocean – which would end up playing a vital part in the modern era; a jump to the present day and some mission, usually an ocean salvage or research operation Dirk is on, getting involved in something that foreshadows the action later in the book; and then the emergence of the real problem, which was often told mostly from Dirk's point of view but with fairly frequent glances into the minds and activities of the book's major adversary or adversaries. After several back-and-forth skirmishing, it would of course appear that the baddies would get the upper hand, but Dirk would come up with a last-minute plan that would, of course, save the day.
Clive Cussler taught me the value of one very key technique: if you want people to accept whatever ridiculous principles, gadgets, or techniques you're going to use later, start out by giving them key action sequences involving something you do know – intimately. Cussler himself is in fact a highly knowledgeable ocean salvage expert, and so the sequences in which people are doing diving, trying to raise something from the bottom, looking for wrecks, and so on are diamond-hard accurate. They give a feeling of solidity and realism to the book's action and to the competence and knowledge of the main characters. Similarly, Cussler does fairly deep research into his historic "driving events", and paints them as carefully and realistically as he can to accomplish his basic plot.
The combination of these gives the reader a confidence that the author knows what he's doing – and then the author can slip much more extreme tricks past the reader without the reader blinking. Cussler is, of course, far from the only author to use this technique, but he was the first one who did it in such a way that I understood what he was doing, and why – and still found that it worked.
This is, perhaps, one of the most surprising characteristics of Cussler's novels to me; I could be reading along in one of his books and hit something that I knew was utter, egregious, ludicrous bullcrap, totally ridiculous and even flat-out stupid… and I'd just nod and go along with it, despite that part of me shouting how stupid the whole thing was. To get me past wrongheaded stuff of that magnitude (such as a full-scale crustal slippage having happened in the last 30k years, or a "sonic drill" somehow killing marine animals ten thousand miles away by acoustic tricks, or a disease so lethal that it kills within seconds of contact) took something special in the writing, and I wish I knew what that trick was. But it was also definitely helped by Cussler setting the stage with real, solid science and technology before he dove off the deep end.
The Dirk Pitt novels are hardly without flaw; they are not only products of their times, playing on whatever fears and paranoia were current then, but also have many of the expected flaws of the action-adventure novel. However, they did change and develop as the series went on. Dirk Pitt started out as a much rougher, not as likeable, character, and took several books to develop into a more personable protagonist; in fact, for various reasons I would generally suggest starting no earlier than Raise The Titanic! to avoid those rough edges and, if you like the series, come back and read the earlier ones. As time went on, Cussler also introduced more recurring characters and relationships between the characters, and a lot of subtle and not-so-subtle nods to other works. (For instance, in one novel Pitt ends up working both against, and with, James Bond, who is as old as he should be given that he started his career in the 1950s or so).
Cussler did have two characteristics that became more annoying as time went on. First, he started inserting himself into the book. At first, this was just a minor amusement – Cussler (a car collector like Dirk) would be present at a car show when Dirk was racing and they'd exchange a few words. But later on, he became more and more a special Deus Ex Machina – a wise old prospector, a local bartender, whoever – who just happened to have the right knowledge or material to get Dirk through his current problem. And despite his otherwise steel-trap memory, Dirk would never remember these encounters in any detail. This became quite annoying.
The other characteristic was that many of his plots involved events or devices/inventions which had literally transformative potential, and often they'd be shown, at the end of the book, to be working/in progress. Yet the subsequent books showed almost no results of significance. Sometimes his prior adventures would be referred to, but the transformational knowledge or technology would disappear into the background; the world remained fairly close to the world of the time in which Cussler was writing, even though some of the prior events should have significantly changed things.
I stopped reading the series at a key closure point – Valhalla Rising, when Dirk finally has an opportunity to make peace with a ghost from his past (from the first-written novel, Pacific Vortex) and conclude a last investigation which brings him face to face with the true inspiration for Verne's Nautilus. At that I felt the story cycle was complete.
Overall, the books' success is sheer "Refuge in Audacity"; after all, just naming your hero "Dirk Pitt" requires a certain amount of cojones to begin with. Nothing's done small when it can be done big, nothing's done easy when it could be hard, and no situation is so sticky that we can't put the hero in it and then have him somehow escape. Our Hero will also always be that little bit cooler, tougher, and smarter than the people he's up against (though not all at the same time; more than once Dirk has to go up against people who are physically well out of his league, for instance).
At their best, the Dirk Pitt books are a slam-bang rollercoaster ride through a web of superspy intrigue, deep-sea salvage, and ancient history. Probably my favorite of the novels is Treasure, which features an improbably complex plan by a single family to destroy/conquer the United States and other countries through manipulating religious fervor and focusing their followers on various wrongs (real or imagined) done them, and somehow ties all of this to a mission by ancient Romans to the inland of North America.
If technothrillers are to your taste, the Dirk Pitt series offers you a variety of tasty selections!