Human relationships are not static. They grow, evolve and change in response to factors ranging from personality growth to unexpected crises to geographical proximity. To further complicate matters, friendship is a shared experience, and no matter how dedicated we are to preserving the status quo, we may have very little influence on what the other participant in the equation does. Sometimes, we fall out of friendship, and sometimes, even though we stand loyally by our friends through thick and thin, we find ourselves shaking our head in disbelief at the things they do. We may not go so far as to formally dissolve the friendship, but we may after a time, start to look at those “visits” as something, not to be cherished, but rather endured.
So… yes, I’ll admit it. I don’t quite look forward to a visit from my “old friend” the way I once did. Judging by the comments I’ve heard and read from fellow Cussler fans, I know that I’m not alone feeling this way, and that realization has prompted me to make an objective examination of exactly what it is that I feel has changed.
First however, let me address something that long time Cussler fans probably don’t think much about: there are still people discovering Clive Cussler’s novels for the first time.
Just think about that for a moment. Maybe it’s someone getting ready for a long flight who blindly grabs a paperback from the airport gift store. Maybe it’s someone browsing the stacks at a used bookstore who—as amazing as it might sound—has never heard of Cussler, but is drawn in by those awesome covers that show things blowing up.
For the professional creative artists—I’m talking writers, filmmakers, musicians—there’s a simple calculation that must be observed; you always need new fans. That’s why, for example, superhero movies often ignore the deeply textured lore of the comic book canon, and try to strike a more universal tone. Filmmakers know (or rather gamble on their belief) that the true fans will show up no matter what, but they also know that if they don’t appeal to a much larger audience, they won’t make back their investment. That’s just how the world works. Writing a novel is a bit different because it’s not as logistically demanding as making a movie, but the considerations are the same. The long-term fan doesn’t always appreciate this, and may feel personally offended if the stories deviate from their expectations.
I discovered Clive Cussler right about the time the “first” Dirk Pitt novel—Pacific Vortex—was released, shortly following the publication of Night Probe (the fifth or sixth Dirk Pitt, depending on how you want to line them up). I immediately scooped up the backlist and devoured them all. Right from the start, I noticed a shift in the tone and style of the novels, but at the time, I didn’t give it much thought. I was in the ‘honeymoon’ phase of the friendship, and Cussler could do no wrong.
As the years wore on, I became more critical of the novels as they came out. I can remember initially being very disappointed with Cyclops…and then with Treasure. I was so disappointed with Dragon that I actually swore off Cussler for a while—which wasn’t that hard to do since he averaged a new release every two years back then. Now, in fairness, I think this says more about me as both a reader and a fan, than about the novels, but I don’t think anyone would argue that there was a pronounced change in style between…say Deep Six (my all time favorite) and the books that followed.
For a long time, I considered there to be three distinctive periods of Cussler novels, and there is now a fourth. The first period was very short—just two novels, or three if you count Pacific Vortex. These were as close to “hard-boiled” as Cussler ever got. They were told almost entirely from Pitt’s point of view, and the action was up close and personal. There were few supporting characters, and the plotting was fairly tight.
The second period, the big evolution, began with Raise the Titanic, and in my opinion continued through Deep Six. Pitt is still the hero, but now he’s part of a much larger tapestry, and often isn’t central to the plot. In this period, Pitt is the everyman hero, who walks on stage in the middle of a big drama and ultimately becomes the focal point of the solution. A perfect example of this is Vixen 03, which features a sympathetic anti-villain (yes, I just made that word up) who is drawn into a plot to launch a stunning false-flag attack on Washington DC, and accidentally almost releases a deadly nerve agent. I call this the Ludlum period for Cussler, not because there was any real similarity (IMHO) between the two novelists, but because the stories were more in the vein of espionage thrillers. The “sunken treasures” that Pitt went looking for were fairly contemporary in nature—ships and trains that had been lost for a century or less. Cold War era politics definitely set the tone for these stories, and while the plots were big and their resolution would have created an alternate future for our world (a world where Canada became part of the United States) Cussler didn’t try to rewrite the ancient past.
The next evolution was a little more subtle, and my decision to mark Cyclops as the turning point is somewhat arbitrary. The plots of the third phase stories remained outrageous (and I mean that in a good way) but now Dirk Pitt is the central figure from the get go. In some cases, this requires an incredulous contrivance, such as Pitt wrangling a runaway blimp while participating in windsurfing race off the Florida coast. Pitt is no longer an “everyman” but now more of a Superman—well, he was always that, but from this point forward, all pretenses were cast aside. What really changed in this period though was the reliance on the supporting characters, particularly the omniscient maritime historian St. Julien Perlmutter and the equally informed NUMA computer genius Hiram Yaeger.
I mentioned that I was disappointed with the books of the third period, but in fairness to Cussler, I think a lot of that was the result of my own expectations. As the years passed and I renewed my friendship, I reread those books and discovered that I didn’t hate them after all; I just needed to experience them from a different perspective.
The fourth period is not marked so much by a change in style as it is a change in management. I am speaking of course about the emergence of the Cussler brand and the involvement of collaborative writers. It is evident, both from anecdotal reports and from some pretty significant plot developments in the Dirk Pitt stories, that Cussler originally intended to retire from writing and pass the torch to his protégés, and particularly, to his son Dirk Cussler. For the most part, that is exactly what has happened, with one notable exception: Dirk Pitt was also supposed to retire, clearing the way for his son, Dirk jr. to carry on the adventurous tradition—more about this later.
The Cussler brand has been both a blessing and a curse for Cussler fans—a blessing because now it means we get three or four books a years, instead of a book every two years—that’s three or four Cussler-style stories (that’s third period Cussler, just so we’re clear) with big action, historical mysteries, buried treasures, and audacious plots. It is a curse for much the same reason. Not only has it become damned expensive and time-consuming to keep up, the frequency of output has dampened the novelty of the experience. A visit from an old friend is great, but when that old friend shows up every weekend…?
I’ve wrestled with these feelings of disloyalty, and as I listen to the comments of friends and read the reviews of the latest Cussler novels, I know that I’m not alone. A lot of the conversations seem to focus on the collaborative authors—some are loved, some are loathed—and often, cynical motives are ascribed to Cussler and/or his publishers. I think those conversations are worth having, but I’m not ready to fold up my tent and declare this friendship to be over.
Next week, I’ll talk a little more about the various flavors of the new Cussler brand and the authors writing them—and just in case you’re wondering, I’m very optimistic—and I’ll focus in a little more on what I think needs to happen to cement the bonds of friendship as we move into the next generation of the Clive Cussler experience.
I’d love to hear from fellow Cussler friends. What has your journey been like? What do you think of the latest evolution? Leave a comment and if I can, I’ll address some of these responses next week!