Saturday, February 29, 2020

Clive Cussler

Clive Cussler has died.  The best-selling author passed away in his home in Arizona at the age of 88.  The only thing worse than reaching an age where you have outlived most of your favorite authors is the alternative.

It might seem strange for a man who made his living writing about the sea to reside in Arizona.  Cussler became famous for his nautical themed books where the protagonist, Dirk Pitt, was an agent for NUMA, the National Underwater Maritime Agency.  Cussler, himself was an avid underwater archaeologist and explorer, personally leading the team that discovered the sunken wreckage of the Confederate Civil War submarine, the CSS H. L. Hunley

So, why did he live miles from the ocean in Arizona?

Well, I love the ocean, too.  And after a hurricane in Galveston left me with a permanent slight limp, well, the deserts of New Mexico sounded pretty good.  I understand perfectly.  I love the ocean and I know exactly where it is when I want to visit.

Cussler wrote so much about the ocean—and his books were so financially successful—that he actually started an organization named NUMA, which has located dozens of lost wrecks, including the S.S. Carpathia (the ship that rescued the passenger of the Titanic) and possibly the Mary Celeste.  (Historians are still arguing about the last one, but that is the nature of historians.)

I first ran across the works of Clive Cussler while I worked for Bantam Books.  I was given a preproduction copy of Raise the Titanic and encouraged to read it before it came out for sale to the general public.  I will confess that I hated the book, thinking the plot, actually raising the doomed ship and sailing it to New York, finishing the ill-fated voyage only 65 years late, was absurd.  And this was years before Robert Ballard located the wreck and proved that the vessel had broken into two large pieces.  (Now that I think about it, I was right, the plot was absurd.)

Bantam wisely ignored my advice and published the book.  This was the general pattern of books I read for Bantam.  If I thought a manuscript was horrible, each would invariably become best sellers.  Books I thought were wonderful usually disappeared from the market faster than donuts at a faculty meeting.   Let’s see--among the books I told New York would never amount to anything were Jaws, Amityville Horror, Saturday Night Fever, and every romance novel—especially those by Barbara Cartland.  The only book that I raved about that ever actually amounted to anything was “Ecotopia”.  That book has become a staple on college campuses, and is still in print.

I had a little trouble with Raise the Titanic.  I convinced a book store in San Antonio that the book was worth selling, convincing them to put together a display in their window.  But the order for a case of 40 copies of the book got a little garbled at the warehouse, and the bookseller was shipped 40 cases of the book.  I suggested that the store put the book on sale, marking down the price a little, moved a few cases of the book around to other stores and eventually managed to have only…. about a thousand too many copies of the book.

Bantam wanted me to see if I could locate a pickup truck and ferry them to a landfill, perhaps destroying the books with a garden hose, first.  Well, I lived in Texas and didn’t know a family without a pickup truck, mine included.  But, the idea of destroying a thousand copies of a book was intolerable.  Even that book.  So, I took them all home.

At the time, The Doc was in med school in San Antonio.  (Technically, I guess that made her The Doc-In-Training.)  In any case, we lived near the hospital in a neighborhood that got hundreds of kids ringing our door for Halloween.  That year, I handed out to every kid a handful of candy and a brand-new copy of Raise the Titanic.  I gave away about 300 copies of the book that night to children who rather clearly didn’t want them.

For a brief moment, I felt pretty good, having made a huge effort to spread literacy by introducing children to the joys of reading.  That feeling lasted until the next morning, when I went outside to drive to work.  Up and down the street were hundreds of copies of Raise the Titanic—in yards, on sidewalks, and in the street.

If you are wondering what happened to the roughly 700 other copies, I kept a case in the trunk of my company car, dropping off a dozen copies at every hospital, retirement home, and school I passed.  I think about a hundred copies made their way into the Texas Prison system.  It took about a year, but I finally managed to give them all away. 

Well, mostly.  Every now and then, as I search around the house for a desperately needed book, I stumble across a forgotten copy.  Every time I think I have gotten rid of the last copy, I find another one.  (Except today, of course.  I was going to post a photo of one, but can’t find one.)

Bantam also sent me Cussler’s three prior books, and I read them, and slowly and somewhat begrudgingly began to appreciate them.  I began to think of them as present-day science fiction, an American version of James Bond meets Admiral Hornblower.  Over the last five decades, I have read at least of dozen of his later works, and while none of them qualify as great literature, I still enjoyed them.  I keep a packed suitcase in the closet, containing just the essentials if I get called away.  As having a book to read is an absolute necessity, there is a Dirk Pitt novel waiting for me in the bag.

And now that I think about it—I’m going to go look for one of those copies of Raise the Titanic again.  It’s time to reread it.


  1. I've read Cussler, but never got really excited about Mr. Pitt or the plots of his adventures. I'm a HUGE Hornblower fan and I can tell you, Cussler doesn't touch C.S. Forester for readability. Cussler always felt a little pushed. And I'm a scuba diver (or was before my knees betrayed me), so the subject matter appealed to me. The one thing that was always encouraged me was that I thought, "Hell, if that guy can make a living writing, I can." Turns out you have to write obsessively and not mind so much when what you write doesn't fit your idea of great literature. I'm still trying to write the great American novel, sci-fi or otherwise, but so far, the business of paying the electric bill occupies far more of my time than I thought it would. Still, Cussler gives me hope that I might be one of those old guys, like Colonel Sanders, who bloom in their dotage.

  2. Quick! What are your stock picks???.....

  3. Have loved his books for years. Sad to hear he died.
    The Oregon Files series is a particular favourite.