May 23, 2010


by Clive Cussler and Justin Scott
408 pages, Putnam Adult

Review by Hereward L.M. Proops

Clive Cussler is one of those prolific authors whose success has led them to develop a reputation for being a scribbler rather than a well-respected novelist. Often maligned by readers of “serious” fiction, Cussler’s books are staple features of airport bookstands and continue to sell thousands of copies worldwide. When you consider that he has had more than seventeen consecutive books on the New York Times bestseller lists, it’s clear that the guy must be doing something right. Indeed, one wonders if the scorn heaped on the American writer comes from the fact that his books enjoy the kind of success that most writers can only dream of.

Like Dan Brown, Cussler’s works are best described as formulaic thrillers. There’s a good guy, a bad guy, a damsel in distress and some kind of MacGuffin that everyone is after. The books contain lots of action, a few plot twists and inevitably climax with a great big dust-up where the hero eventually defeats his enemy and takes the girl out for dinner. Straightforward, undemanding and entertaining. Okay, it’s hardly Shakespeare but you don’t eat ultra-expensive Kobe beef all the time, do you? Sometimes all you need is a nice, familiar cheeseburger. That’s what Cussler provides – he’s the Big Mac of the publishing world. You know it’s wrong, but you can’t help but enjoy it.

The Wrecker is Cussler’s second novel featuring Isaac Bell, the first being 2007’s The Chase. Unlike his previous works, Cussler’s novels featuring Bell are historical thrillers, set against the backdrop of America at the turn of the twentieth century. It’s a great setting – the rise of industrialism and the rapid financial growth rubbing shoulders with the last gasps of the Old West lifestyle. Cussler includes enough period detail to make the past come alive but doesn’t let it slow the story down. The Wrecker is as fast-paced and thrilling as any of his more technology-heavy, gadget-laden tales. In fact, by stripping back on the amount of hi-tech toys, he seems more able to focus on the all-important business of spinning a good yarn.

The novel follows ace sleuth Isaac Bell of the Van Dorn detective agency (an organisation that bears more than a passing resemblance to the legendary Pinkerton detectives) as he investigates a series of increasingly audacious attacks on the railroad empire of Osgood Hennessy. The mysterious saboteur, known only as “The Wrecker”, has to be stopped before the banks lose faith in Hennessy’s scheme to complete the line that will revolutionise cross-country travel in America. Bell travels back and forth across the country, getting into brawls, car chases and gunfights, all the while remaining one step behind the elusive Wrecker.

Isaac Bell bears more than a passing resemblance to Dirk Pitt, Cussler’s other heroic central character. Both are highly intelligent men with a strong, athletic physique. Both are crack shots with guns and are able to hold their own in a fistfight. They share a passion for cars, though the antique motors that Pitt collects are the top-of-the-range automobiles of Bell’s day. In fact, the only differentiation between the two, other than the historical setting, is that many of Dirk Pitt’s adventures occur at sea whilst Bell is a predominantly land-based hero. Whilst Cussler doesn’t go so far as to give Bell a wisecracking companion to match Pitt’s Al Giordino, it is pretty clear that he didn’t spend much time fleshing out the character as much as the setting.

Whilst the characterisation leaves a lot to be desired, you’ll be unlikely to care as Cussler keeps the main plot moving at an impressive pace. This momentum is probably the novel’s strongest feature, deftly shifting from set-piece to set-piece right up to the ridiculous, cinematic finale atop a structurally unsound railway bridge. It’s breathlessly exciting stuff, even if it is as shallow as the average Hollywood blockbuster.

It is unlikely to tax the grey-matter of anyone over the age of fourteen, but that is hardly an issue. The Wrecker is an action-packed romp that is perfect beach-fodder. Though you’ll tear through it faster than a runaway train, it’s undeniably good fun. There may be far better books out there, but if you’re looking for a rip-snorting, summer blockbuster to read by the side of the pool, look no further.

Hereward L.M. Proops

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