Volume 23, Number 01, Fall, 2004

Lost City

By Clive Cussler with Paul Kemprecos

Putnam, 1998: $26.95 ISBN 039915177X

Reviewed by Michael Grossberg
November 2004

If only Clive Cussler had discovered the secret of immortality in one of his earlier undersea adventure novels, then his aging hero Dirk Pitt might not have had to retire five books ago. Never fear, though, Cussler fans. Even those who miss Pitt, as I do, won’t mind following the similarly heroic he-man exploits of Kurt Austin in Lost City, a ripsnorting thriller about murderous efforts to conceal a search for a biotech-enhanced secret of eternal life. Austin, virtually a cardboard-cutout replacement for the similarly cardboard Pitt, is the platinum-haired hero of Cussler’s NUMA Files series, which includes White Death, Fire Ice, Blue Gold and Serpent.

Coauthored by Paul Kemprecos, who also has written six underwater detective thrillers, the NUMA Files novels hew faithfully to Cussler’s guy-oriented fare. Cussler doesn’t pretend to be a good writer, but he’s a good storyteller. His escapist formula spices waterlogged adventure with mystery, mythic history, violence, high-tech equipment, exotic locales and sexy women.

Lost City offers especially interesting mysteries within mysteries as scientists are murdered or kidnapped and the tunnels underneath a glacier are flooded for nefarious purposes. Among the mysteries: rumors of red-eyed beasts that might be mutants; the fast-growing spread of gorgonweed, which threatens to clog the oceans; and a centuries-old warrior’s helmet that may hold clues to a vast conspiracy for world domination. (Ho hum; most Cussler novels involve a conspiracy for world domination.)

The novel also offers more imaginative locales and scenarios, some borrowed shamelessly from H.G. Wells (The Island of Dr. Moreau) and Jules Verne (Mysterious Island). The best elements pay explicit tribute to Edgar Allan Poe with suspenseful situations modeled on “The Cask of Amontillado,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” and “The Masque of the Red Death.”

One of the most irritating flaws of too many Cussler novels have been his ludicrously improbable villains. Lost City is one of the best Cussler novels in years, partly because of its more intriguing villain—actually, a series of convincing characters whose connections and motivations are revealed only gradually.

Some villains are associated with several generations of a secretive French family of arms merchants—and these days, it’s easy to dislike the French. Using arms merchants as shadowy and suspicious but all-powerful characters is a mindless cliche of 19th century and early 20th century melodrama that deflects attention from the coercive evils of government, no matter who tries to manipulate the political levers. Libertarians will have to put aside their impatience and disagreement with Cussler’s crude and naive comic-book-level view of politics, economics, and history in order to enjoy his boyish escapist fare.

As for Pitt, he’s mentioned briefly as an administrator of NUMA, the fictional National Underwater Marine Agency that gives Cussler such a globe-circling license to kill—and thrill.

It’s a guy thing.

This is an expanded version of a review that appeared in The Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio), reprinted with permission.

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