For millions of readers, Clive Cussler brought sea adventures to life
“Dirk Pitt is the consummate man of action who lives by the moment for the moment…without regret!” —Clive Cussler, adventure writer, 1931-2020
I found myself in a supermarket near Curtis Creek at 6 a.m. not long ago, allowed in before the regular crowd because, though the number seems alien to me, I am over 60-years-old. The courtesy came as Maryland braced for the you-know-what in the wake of the terrible beating it had wreaked in New York.
Books for sale were at the far end of the paper-goods aisle (makes sense) while nary a roll of Mr. Whipple’s main-squeeze nor a package of the “quicker-picker-upper” was to be had. At the other end of the all-but-empty aisle, in a rack with true crime, mysteries, romances, and tell-alls was Clive Cussler’s Celtic Empire.
The flip of a few pages revealed the murder of U.N. scientists in El Salvador, a raid on ancient tombs along the Nile, and the smash-up of vessels near a place more exotic than El Salvador and the Nile combined—DETROIT!
I took a disinfectant wipe to the book and with gloved hands, put it back, and kept shopping.
Cussler, who died on February 24 at the age of 88 in Scottsdale, Arizona, wrote what is known as “airplane” books. Yet just about every one of his titles (85 altogether with sales over 100 million copies) were about the sea.
“You could always, always, always find a Cussler book in an airport newsstand,” said Tim Marshall, an education consultant and frequent flyer who grew up fishing and crabbing in Prospect Bay near Kent Narrows and below the Bay Bridge.
“I would always leave the finished book on a chair or table at an airport for the next person to enjoy,” said Marshall, 61, now retired and living in Dallas.
In the world of popular sea stories, Patrick O’Brian wrote about the days of sail. The vessels in books by the mysterious B. Traven (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Death Ship) make their way by steam. And Cussler, a diver of old wrecks who founded the National Underwater and Marine Agency [NUMA], wrote about ships propelled by diesel.
Cussler’s oeuvre is like the Hardy Boys series for grown-ups, if Frank and Joe were a couple of Navy SEALS masquerading as able-bodied seamen. His primary hero, Dirk Pitt, was described by the New York Times as an “endearing blend of Boy Scout, Doc Savage and James Bond.”
We are not deconstructing Joseph Conrad here, and Cussler would be the first to say so. The horror he presents has a comic book feel to it, and, though literary candy, it’s good and chewy and seasoned with sea salt.
“Because of the time I spent crabbing and fishing with my grandfather at Half Pone Point on the Patxuent, I have always been drawn to tales about the sea, everything from ancient mariners to underwater explorers,” said Michael Gerlach, 60 and once again living in his childhood community of Catonsville. “Captain Nemo, Blackbeard, Magellan, and Jacques Cousteau.
But it was in Cussler’s novels, Gerlach said, “that the sense of adventure and mystery was taken to a different level. I’d found the stories I’d been looking for.”
What especially enthralled readers like Gerlach was that Cussler, once fame allowed him to invest in his passion, was an ardent explorer who took many a voyage to the bottom of the sea.
Through NUMA (the real-life counterpart of the organization featured in his books), Cussler led and took part in expeditions that located some five dozen wrecks, though there is debate about some of the finds to which he is credited.
Among the undisputed claims is the Carpathia, the first ship to reach survivors of the Titanic in 1912 (sunk a half-dozen years later during World War I by the Germans); and the Confederate ironclad Manassas, which went down in the Lower Mississippi in 1862.
“He brought those experiences to life in his novels,” said Gerlach. “The Dirk Pitt books especially go back to the days of Saturday afternoon movie serials. I loved how NUMA conquered the world’s most notorious foes just like the Lone Ranger did in the past. Cussler thrilled millions.”
Millions of readers—folks looking for a non-toxic escape—bought, read, traded, left behind, and mislaid a bounty of read-it-in-a-day thrillers like Arctic Drift, Atlantis Found, Golden Buddha, and his breakthrough blockbuster in 1976, Raise the Titanic!.
(Love the exclamation mark, which did not follow the story to the big screen in 1980 when Pitt was played by Richard Jordan and the great M. Emmet Walsh (Blood Simple) as Chief Vinnie Walker.)
Even folks who can’t swim and don’t like boats are fans, many of them women, though Cussler, like Frank Zappa and the Three Stooges, tended to draw a male audience.
Ann Roberts Arbaugh was introduced to Cussler by a younger sister and was soon following the exploits of Kurt Austin in “The NUMA Files” series.
“It’s the way he adds small details of previous adventures into a current story that makes it fun to figure things out,” said Arbaugh, a 57-year-old from Reisterstown who posted news of Cussler’s death on her Facebook page.
“In Pharaoh’s Secret, (No. 13 in the NUMA series), water is disappearing,” said Arbaugh, who works in accounting and often found a Cussler title on the “take one/leave one” bookshelf at work. “When some of the characters were standing near an empty lake, I felt like I was standing there beside them.” What more could a writer ask?
Many Cussler devotees are also fans of Tom Clancy, the Baltimore-born espionage writer who died at age 66 in 2013 and is also a marquee byline in airports, train stations, and supermarkets.
The difference between Cussler and Clancy, besides the fact that Clive did not hold a minority interest in the Baltimore Orioles…?
“I find Cussler tends to weave a better story overall,” said Sam McLane, Sr., 53, a chef who spent his early childhood in Linthicum and now works in cyber-security in Salt Lake City. “If I want to learn about the origins of the M1 Abrams tank, Clancy is the guy.”
Like other writers whose audience was vast, their stories leaving readers wanting more (and more), the Dirt Pitt and NUMA books will likely go on as long as there is money to be made from them. As Cussler went from old to elderly, several of his novels were co-authored with his son, Dirk Cussler.
“I don’t want it to be going away,” said the younger Cussler a decade ago. “As long as the fans keep reading them, there are no plans for [Pitt’s] demise.”