Visits from an Old Friend (part two)

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  • Monday, April 1, 2013
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  • Sean Ellis
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  • In 2001, adventure novelist Clive Cussler stunned his fans with the revelation that his signature protagonist Dirk Pitt had (evidently through a process not unlike immaculate conception) unknowingly fathered twin offspring—a boy, Dirk jr. and a girl, Summer—who were subsequently raised by their mother and grew up to be the spitting image of their respective parents.  That bombshell at the end of Valhalla Rising, was followed soon thereafter by the news that Dirk would be settling down,  marrying his long-time love interest Congresswoman Loren Smith, and taking over the job of running NUMA.  It seemed evident to everyone that both Cussler and Pitt were planning to fade into the background, allowing their respective “juniors” to continue the legacy.  Indeed, not only was the eighteenth Dirk Pitt novel, Black Wind, solidly a “Dirk Pitt jr.” novel, it also was the first book to credit Dirk Cussler as co-author.

    There was a certain elegant symmetry to it all, at least in theory.  Unfortunately, Black Wind wasn’t what readers wanted.  Opinions will vary on the “why,” but the upshot was that Dirk sr. came out of retirement for the next novel, Treasure of Khan, and Dirk jr. took a backseat—and it’s been that way ever since.
    I would have loved to have been a fly-on-the-wall when Cussler broached the idea of creating a next-gen Dirk Pitt with his publisher (or whoever sat in on that decision).  I have to believe someone must have suggested taking the floating time-line approach—a la James Bond where the characters never age even though the world around them keeps moving forward—and in hindsight, I think that would have been a better choice. Actually, the Dirk Pitt novels already employ a variation of the floating time-line; the characters in the story have aged about ten years over the course of Pitt’s forty year long journey.  (Yes, forty years!  The Mediterranean Caper was published in 1973).   But, the decision was made, and now we’ve got ourselves a passel of Pitts.  Instead of launching a new era of Pitt adventures, the developments in Valhalla Rising and Trojan Odyssey instead simply added to an already overloaded ensemble cast of supporting characters.
    These developments didn’t happen in a vacuum.  While Cussler was getting ready to roll out the thriller equivalent of “New Coke,” his other brands were starting to get some momentum of their own.  The NUMA Files, then co-authored by Paul Kemprecos, was in many respects a carbon copy of the Pitt series, but that was exactly what Cussler fans needed, what with Pitt getting married (gasp) and settling down.  The Oregon Files—a spin-off from the NUMA universe, featuring a crew of noble mercenaries who roam the seas in a high-tech warboat disguised as a tramp freighter—got a huge boost when the original creative contributor Craig Dirgo was sidelined, and veteran thriller novelist Jack DuBrul stepped in and turned The Oregon Files into (arguably) the most popular Cussler franchise up to that point. And Cussler was cooking up a couple more flavors—The Fargo adventures and the Isaac Bell novels would debut a couple years thereafter.  Today we have five different Cussler factory brands to choose from. The novels are different enough that it’s easy to have a favorite, and if you are so inclined, ignore the rest. 
    A lot of readers seem to like the Isaac Bell novels, co-authored by Justin Scott (aka Paul Garrison) which are set in the early twentieth century, a time when all those classic vehicles that Dirk Pitt loves so much were shiny and new.  There’s an oft-repeated sentiment in Cussler’s early novels that Dirk Pitt was born a century too late; I think that was the rationale for the Isaac Bell series.  This series has become one of my favorites as well, and for much the same reason; I love the historical setting, but even more than that, I like the challenge of a world where the hero can’t simply consult an all knowing super-computer to solve a mystery, or race at Mach 3 to the other side of the planet to save the day in the nick of time.
    Still, I can’t help feeling a bit guilty at having reached a plateau in my “friendship” with Dirk Pitt.  Back in the day, I would eagerly anticipate the release of a new Pitt novel; now, I feel only anxiety—the kind of fear you feel for a friend who is about to make a scene in public or do something that might prove horribly embarrassing.
    It was with just such a sense of apprehension that I picked up the latest Cussler & Cussler offering, Poseidon’s Arrow.  Now, I had already heard a lot of bad things about this book from friends; several had told me that they were unable to finish it, and I didn’t exactly rush out to get it.  But I tried to keep an open mind as I tucked into it, and to my surprise, I found that I rather enjoyed it.  It featured some truly memorable Pitt moments (and quite a few Pitt jr. ones as well) culminating in an awesome climactic battle scene in the Panama Canal.  The novel does have its flaws, and I’ll get to that in a minute, but on the whole Poseidon’s Arrow is a worthy entry to the series and if, as I believe to be true, Dirk Cussler is doing most of the heavy lifting, then I think he is proving himself a worthy heir to the man who was once named the Grandmaster of Adventure.
    So…if Poseidon’s Arrow is so good…well, not horrible…why is everyone talking trash about it?  And why is there a low grumble of discontent among the long-time Cussler fans about the overall of quality of novels bearing his name?
    There are a lot of possible answers; I tend to think that unrealistic expectations based on nostalgia accounts for some of the negative reactions.  That’s just a basic human trait; that thing we remember fondly from our youth will often disappoint us when we revisit it later in life.  But I don’t think that tells the whole story.
    Last week, I talked about the four periods of change in the Dirk Pitt series. A few readers shared their Cussler journey with me, and as I expected, many of them came aboard the NUMA ship around the time that the novel Sahara was adapted as a motion picture (we will say no more of that).  That means a lot of folks are phase three Cussler fans; for them, the “original recipe” is one that includes the requisite Clive Cussler cameo, a visit with St. Julien Perlmutter, and lots of help from NUMA personnel like Rudi Gunn, Hiram Yaeger, and of course, Admiral Sandecker.  These third-period Cussler readers probably had a much easier time accepting the arrival of the kids and even the idea that Dirk would settle down and get married, because they didn’t “grow up” with the roguish ladies man who could have given James Bond some lessons on game.
    On that subject, it’s not that there’s anything wrong with having a protagonist in a committed relationship; it’s just different than what we were used to.  And it also makes for some awkward scenes in the newer stories, such as in Poseidon’s Arrow, where the damsel du jour fairly throws herself at Pitt, and he must rebuff her advances without coming off as unmanly. Dirk Cussler once shared with me that he regretted his father’s decision to settle Pitt down and have him marry his long-time paramour Loren Smith.  I actually feel that Dirk and Loren’s eventual union felt very natural, unlike the sudden appearance of the kids.
    Ah, yes…the kids.  It is the arrival of Dirk jr. and Summer Pitt that marks the fourth period of the Dirk Pitt novels, and that’s what I really want to focus on here.  As I mentioned earlier, Black Wind appears to have been intended as a passing of the torch, both with respect to the author duties and the role of the protagonist.  Everything was set up to have Dirk sr. take over the Sandecker role as NUMA boss and facilitator, Dirk jr. had his own unique set of bona fides to make us believe that he would be a capable replacement protagonist, and we even got a new side-kick in the person of Jack Dahlgren, a tough Texan with a marvelous moustache and a crush on Summer, to replace the beloved Al Giordino.  One problem with the Black Wind roll out was that it was too familiar; the new characters weren’t distinctive enough, and that just made us want Dirk sr. back in the saddle.  It was too much to believe that this new cast of young upstarts could ride in and save the world with the same aplomb as Dirk and Al, who earned their stripes over the course of three decades…they raised the Titanic, for Pete’s sake.  I have spoken with more than one Cussler fan who refuses to read any of the books with “the kids,” and while they don’t always come out and say it, you get a real sense that these readers feel betrayed.
    Let me just state for the record: The kids are alright.
    In fact, even though the Pitt scions are relegated to a secondary role in the newer novels, they have now survived enough tough scrapes and endured enough personal tragedy, to be credible action heroes.  Poseidon’s Arrow has a particularly gritty scene where Summer and Dirk jr. are trapped in a sunken submersible where the only possible avenue of escape is to amputate one of Summer’s limbs. These kids are now tough and seasoned, and ready for prime time.
    The problem with the latest Cussler factory productions, as I see it, is that there are just too many characters.  This is particularly an issue with the Dirk Pitt series, where it has now become necessary to integrate the classic characters with the new additions.  This has the effect of reducing the impact of the heroic contributions of the main protagonists, making them seem less heroic and ultimately making the resolution less satisfying.  It’s a little like what happened with the Star Trek franchise, where the film makers felt compelled to give every supporting cast member an important role in the story.
    Here’s my simple solution to this problem.
    It’s time for the kids to strike out on their own.  Dirk jr. and Summer are ready to take the spotlight.  But I hear you asking: “What about Dirk sr. and Al Giordino? We’re not ready for them to ride off into the sunset.”  The good news is, they don’t have to.
    With his Isaac Bell series, Cussler has established a precedent for historical fiction.  In fact, the Bell novels move around in time quite a bit, jumping forward and backward in time as needed.  The same can, and should, be done with the Dirk Pitt novels.
    I propose the creation of a new Dirk Pitt series—let’s call it “The Dirk Pitt Legacy Series”—wherein we join Dirk and Al on their adventures before the events of Valhalla Rising.  The stories could be set in between the existing novels.
    This idea is attractive to me because it would give us back a younger, more vital Dirk Pitt, not chained to the desk of NUMA leadership, and yes, I’ll just say it, free to romance the damsels in distress.  We can get Sandecker back where he belongs, and Al can go back to swiping those legendary cigars. In short, a series like this would give us back the Dirk Pitt that many long-time faithful Cussler readers originally fell in love with.
    There is a question of style.  I would favor stories from the second period (Raise the Titanic through Deep Six—for more on this, see Visits from an Old Friend part one) as this would create a distinctive narrative voice for the Dirk Pitt Legacy series, setting it apart from the NUMA files and the ongoing Dirk Pitt (jr.) novels, but another way to go might be to return to Pitt’s earliest roots, with a series of lean, mean hardboiled adventures reminiscent of The Mediterranean Caper.  Shorter, punchier…and yes, pulpier, novels would be perfect for a mass market/ebook release, and might actually resonate better with today’s always-on-the-go readers.
    Now, the obvious drawback—if you can call it that—is that it would further increase the reading list of Cussler fans.  I don’t see this as too much of a problem since many Cussler readers are already picking and choosing from the menu, but if that’s just too much Cussler…well, maybe it’s time to bid adieu to the Fargos.  Just sayin’.
    Will it happen?  Probably not.  Should it happen?  What do you think?  I’d love to hear your opinions on this in the comments below.


    Steve Manke said...

    I love the idea of the Legacy Series! It's very fertile ground. And there could be a fair amount of fun if the events of the new books mesh well with the established timeline of the existing series rather than avoid it. For example the first time Dirk met Summer in Pacific Vortex. Embrace it and work with it. Or go back to Dirk and Al's first meeting. Those origin stories are really hot right now!

    And, it's good to see I'm not the only one not "feeling it" for Fargos. I like every part of the franchise but that one seems a little flat. Uninspired? And, if I had to rank them in some sort of order, the Fargo Adventures would be at the bottom of my list.

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