The reviewer is the author of several novels, among them "The Wind Chill Factor" and "The Man from Lisbon."
About a year ago I found myself wandering through a musty rural junk shop and, lo, there among the "antique" hoes and rakes and fringed Pearl Harbor pillows and a lamp with a bulb that rose from a hula dancer's forehead, I came upon a trove of the magazines that sustained me as a youth, The Open Road for Boys. I never was particularly enthralled by the articles on tying the sidewinding double-knotted half-hitch, but I loved the pieces of serialized fiction that usually featured flyers of bi-wing planes, intrepid lads in leather helmets with goggles and jodhpurs tucked into hightop boots. So, I bought the magazines, read them with curiosity and put them away among other relics of those long-ago days.
Reading Clive Cussler's "Night Probe!" I was reminded of those old stories and dug the magazines out and began leafing through them again, trying to confirm an assumption I'd been unable to resist. It had occurred to me while struggling in the tentacles of Cussler's monstrous prose that they did these things much better in the old days. I was right, I'm afraid, though I don't mean to be too tough on "Night Probe!" After all, you ought to judge such books in terms of what need they are intended to satisfy. Even if you've learned the inexplicable truth that books and movies with exclamation points in the titles are almost always out to con you as quickly as possible.
But even on its own terms -- as nothing other than a mindless time-killer -- this book is beyond redemption. It deals with a lost 1914 treaty between Great Britain and the United States that involved the sale of Canada for $1 million. Lost in two calamities -- a ship sinking and a train sinking (Cussler is the same chap who went underwater in "Raise the Titanic") -- and obviously never acted upon, the treaty has now come to light and is destined to play a part in the president's plans to blackmail Quebec into sharing a huge oil find. The political machinations -- the British, Canadians, and Yanks are all in high dudgeon -- contain the spark of potential interest, but it is rapidly quenched by a tidal wave of prose the likes of which is seldom seen this side of the Bermuda Triangle. Never trust a writer who is at his best underwater, I guess.
There is a written-with-a-crayon quality about the dialogue that might serve as an example of how to lose any credibility for your characters. Listen to some of this stuff chosen at random:
"Hardly a munificent sum, but it should keep me eating for a few days." Come again? Or take page 78. Please, take page 78. It's a one-page primer on how people do not now, and never have, conversed.
Or: "We played high school football together. He was the shrewdest, most unpredictable quarterback in the league." You don't say. I mean, literally, you don't say that, not if you've ever played football, or listened to people who have. Not if you're a writer.
Or: "Your favorite. Pastrami on wheat." Pastrami on wheat? Perhaps I quibble: I realize it's not a cookbook.
And there is the constant devotion to cliche's. It is breathtaking. On a single page "loving care" is "lavished," surprise is "momentary," wounds (and mouths) "gape." What is one to make of this, page after page? And no strips of little pictures to take your mind off it all.
Listen to an old salt called Le Mat: "The six-thousand ton Storstad, laden with eleven thousand tons of coal, cut into the Empress amid ships, slicing gaping wounds twenty-four feet high and fifteen feet wide. Within fourteen minutes the Empress fell to the bed of the St. Lawrence, taking over a thousand souls with it." How would you like to be trapped on board ship with Le Mat gabbling along like a talking book for a week or two? Later on the hero remarks solemnly that the Empress is "a tomb of a thousand souls." Okay, okay, we get it.
And you've got to deal with the names of the characters. Dickens could get away with this sort of thing, but what to do with Cussler? Is he kidding us? In addition to the forthright hero Dirk Pitt, there is the arch-villain Foss Gly, and an imbecilic presidential chief-of-staff called Harrison Moon IV. And a woman called Zerri Pochinsky. The mind reels. Where is Pruneface?
The point is, it's too easy to just excuse a piece of junk like this. We really shouldn't let Cussler off the hook. After all, the intentions of such a novel are modest enough and can be achieved with considerable wit, style, and verve. Bookstores are jammed with the work of real writers who accomplish just that. So why should anyone settle for "Night Probe!"?