TREASURE By Clive Cussler Simon and Schuster. 539 pp. $18.95
Clive Cussler writes adventure novels the way Alberto Tomba attacks a ski slope -- with a slashing, on-the-precipice, controlled recklessness that leaves you highly entertained, slightly disbelieving and just a tad overwhelmed.
The treasure in "Treasure" is the long-missing contents of the Great Library and Museum of Alexandria. That fabled vast storehouse of ancient art, literature and knowledge was ordered destroyed as pagan flotsam by the Emperor Theodosius in A.D. 391, but (according to lore) the cream of the repository was spirited away by a disobedient curator and hidden -- location unknown.
When clues to the location of the ages-lost treasure trove pop up in a frozen ancient shipwreck under the Greenland Sea, Washington sics intrepid, urbane, pit bull-tough Dirk Pitt on the case. Not that the quest can command Pitt's undivided attention, what with the ingeniously attempted midair rubout of the beautiful U.N. secretary general by terrorists, incipient unrest in Mexico and Egypt that threatens to topple those shaky governments, the hijacking and midocean disappearance of a ship carrying the presidents of the two beleaguered nations, and sundry other crises -- all of which have Dirk scurrying from North to South Pole with Pitt stops at Colorado, on the banks of the Potomac and the Mexican border. If you could get your hands on Pitt's frequent-flier miles, you could take a free trip around the world with a bonus excursion to Jupiter thrown in.
The formidable forces of darkness that do battle with Pitt would never rub elbows with the chardonnay and quiche set. They range from the cerebral assassin Ammar ("I'm still the best eliminator in the Middle East") to the murderous cretin Ismail ("utterly incapable of remorse. He would have celebrated after blowing up a maternity ward."), aided and abetted by a pair of religious charlatans whose gulled and restive followers are the linchpins in a plan for global dominance.
Cussler moves the players around the global chessboard with a compelling clarity that keeps you captivated, though not always convinced. His shoot-outs are first rate ("Pitt's first shot took Ammar in the right shoulder and spun him sideways. The second smashed through his chin and lower jaw."); his characters are cum laude graduates of the take-no-prisoners school ("Dillinger's short burst into the throat cut off the Mexican's plea ..."); and there's no haw or hem to Cussler's mayhem ("With the cartilage of the larynx crushed, most men would have gagged to death."). Not these men. The Wimp Factor in "Treasure" is zero.
Not everything in "Treasure" glitters. High adventure degenerates into high jinks in a Keystone Kops good-guys-and-terrorists car chase down a death-defying Colorado ski slope. Cussler's female characters aren't going to get him a membership in the Susan B. Anthony Society. They melt in Pitt's presence in a manner reminiscent of the Wicked Witch after her dousing by Dorothy. Consider the abject surrender of the winsome archeologist aiding Pitt in the search for the treasure: "Pitt's green eyes were so piercing that her legs grew weak and her hands trembled ... 'I feel like a brazen harlot,' she whispered. ... 'Better,' he said in a husky voice, 'that you act like one.' "
Cussler's prose also suffers from a bad dose of the similes, including: "The Arab dropped like a bag of cement," "We're lit up like a Las Vegas chorus line" and "The destruction was as devastating as a sledgehammer smashing a child's toy."
But these problems are apparent only upon studied reflection. And Cussler provides about as much time for that as it takes a sledgehammer to drop a Las Vegas chorus line like a bag of cement. Cruising speed in "Treasure" is pedal-to-the-metal, fast-forward. An interlude is little more than terrorists sitting around strategizing who will terminate whom, and how; or reveling in an adversary's grotesquely disfiguring misstep: "Fawzy ... stared with the perverted thrill of one who enjoyed the sight of human wreckage." And the conclusion is gangbusters.
If "Treasure" were judged as an Olympic event, you'd throw out the perfect 6.0 (from the NRA judge) and the Bronx-cheer 0.9 (from the NOW judge) and be left with a string of 5.8s -- confirmation that while "Treasure's" not solid gold, it's got plenty of precious mettle.
The reviewer, a Washington attorney, is a frequent contributor to Book World.