Clive Cussler may be the most worthwhile $7.99 Safeway book rack purchase my family has ever made.
His novels follow his hero Awesome McCoolname Dirk Pitt and his sidekicks at the redundantly-named National Underwater and Marine Association through a series of increasingly improbable exploits in order to defeat villains whose world-domination plans make Bond villains look like overcooked spaghetti. The adventures always involve one or two shipwrecks, one or more beautiful ladies, and an author stand-in minor character.
My dad purchased his first Cussler novel, Flood Tide, as an airplane read and quickly discovered that Clive Cussler’s books are gold mines of unintentionally strange wording. We own several of them now and all are dog-eared and underlined with gems. Take some examples from the three copies I have lying around.
There are mixed metaphors:
“We’ve only won a minor skirmish in the war, but we’ve cut off an important tentacle of the octopus.” –Flood Tide, p.149
“Your bedtime stories make mine sound like Mother Goose science fiction tales.” –Atlantis Found, p.413
…faster than a vampire pisses blood… –Sahara, p. 509
“Like trillions of cloning Frankensteins…” –Sahara, p. 103
…a small piece of glass from a gauge that was embedded in his cheek. –Sahara, p. 177
“Stupid of him to attack a man carrying a gun with a letter opener.” –Sahara, p. 532
A collector of old classic cars… –Flood Tide, p. 196
…a ten-pound deadly killer weapon… –Atlantis Found, p. 425
…box-shaped containers… –Sahara, p. 301
And, last but not least, a persistent tendency to describe people as animals:
Sandecker was as canny as a leopard sleeping in a tree with one eye open… –Atlantis Found, p. 139
All I could see were his ebony eyes and a nose shaped like an eagle. –Sahara, p. 61
He looked into the eyes of a jackal while Kazim gazed into the eyes of a fox. –Sahara, p. 249
I could go on all day and I would only find it more and more entertaining. Seriously, this is the list after I pared it down to the bare essentials. I’ll stop.
A post about everything that’s bad about his books could be novel-length in and of itself, but none of that changes the fact that I like them. I’ve read plenty of other bad novels, but none of them keep me coming back like Clive Cussler does. I’ve come to realize that, while he breaks every rule of good writing that you learn in an introductory fiction workshop, there are some things that he does really well.
First, his novels have good pacing. As any B-movie fan can tell you, pacing is the difference between “so bad it’s good” and “so bad it’s terrible.” Basically, 300 pages of Bella gazing into Edward’s eyes is boring. 300 pages of a Confederate ironclad carrying a kidnapped Abraham Lincoln across the Atlantic Ocean and then being stranded in the Sahara Desert while a deadly red tide threatens to fill the world’s oceans is awesome.
His prose also keeps you reading. Of course, you’re turning pages in anticipation of the next inadvertently hilarious bit of wording, but I’ll take a mixed metaphor over a steaming pile of purple prose any day. Thinking over generic paperbacks that I’ve found dull, the reason is usually either that they fail to give enough description, or that the excessive description bogs down the events. Cussler injects enough description to give you a good idea of what’s happening while keeping the story moving. You might think that this is a basic skill, but I’ve read plenty of authors who don’t have it.
He avoids complicated topics like emotions, which are limited to manly stuff like lust and anger. Successfully portraying something simple and cliche beats miserably failing to portray something subtle, at least in my opinion.
Finally, he knows his stuff. I know you’re immediately saying “But his villains are trying to melt Antarctica and divert the course of the Mississippi River! What are you talking about?” Yes, but he also knows a lot about sunken ships and classic cars and can talk about them authoritatively. The over-the-top nature of the plots keeps the reality and unreality perfectly distinct, thus avoiding Dan Browning. And, as when anyone enthusiastically talks about a favorite subject, there’s a certain draw to how he really, really likes shipwrecks and thinks that you should, too.
In conclusion, Clive Cussler doesn’t just write bad novels. He writes bad novels well, and I intend to continue reading them.
While I’m on the topic, it would be terrible of me not to mention that my sister once wrote her own Clive Cussler-style novel during NaNoWriMo. It’s well worth a read, and it costs $7.99 less than getting your own paperback from Safeway.