Friday, September 25, 2009

Forgotten Books: The Mediterranean Caper - Clive Cussler

I don’t suppose you could really consider any of Clive Cussler’s novels forgotten, but you don’t hear much about this one, and it has some historical significance because it was the first published appearance of Cussler’s long-running series character Dirk Pitt. Not, however, the first Pitt novel written. Chronologically, the first Pitt novel is PACIFIC VORTEX, which Cussler wrote but was unable to sell. THE MEDITERRANEAN CAPER came next and was published in England by Sphere Books in 1973 under the title MAY DAY. Bantam brought it out as a paperback in the U.S. in 1977 as THE MEDITERRANEAN CAPER. However, by that time, Pitt had appeared in the U.S. in hardback in what’s actually the third novel in the series, ICEBERG, his first appearance in the U.S. Then a few years later, following Cussler’s ascent onto the bestseller list with RAISE THE TITANIC!, Cussler dusted off that trunk book, PACIFIC VORTEX, and found a publisher for it. Confused yet? You would have been if you’d read THE MEDITERRANEAN CAPER or ICEBERG back in the Seventies, because the books contain references back to previous volumes in the series that hadn’t actually been published yet. (Update: Check the comments for clarification on this book's publication history.)

With that bit of history out of the way, what about the books themselves? Well, knowing the order in which they actually run, story-wise, I read the first one, PACIFIC VORTEX, a few years ago, and while I thought the writing was pretty rough in spots, I enjoyed it. As I’ve said many times before, give me a writer with a distinctive voice, even if that voice isn’t as slick as some others. I’m just now getting back to Dirk Pitt. THE MEDITERRANEAN CAPER gets off to a great start. A small U.S. air base on the Greek island of Thasos is attacked by a mysterious World War I-era German biplane. A ship belonging to NUMA (the National Underwater Marine Agency) happens to be nearby searching in the Aegean for a prehistoric fish that may not be extinct after all. Pitt and his sidekick Al Giordino, who are troubleshooters for NUMA, happen to be flying in, too, in a World War II-era PBY, so we get a nice dogfight between the two vintage planes.

After that, Pitt has to investigate the reason for the attack, of course, which leads him into a conspiracy right out of a Sixties secret agent movie: there’s a beautiful woman who may or may not be trustworthy, an evil baddie who looks like Erich Von Stroheim (as Cussler points out frequently), an underground labyrinth with deadly dangers lurking in it, secret lairs, skin-diving, explosions, fistfights, double-crosses, a wrap-up where the bad guy stands around explaining everything . . . well, you get the idea. If you like this kind of stuff (and you know I do!), THE MEDITERRANEAN CAPER is a lot of fun. At this point in his career, Cussler’s still not much of a stylist and has a tin ear for dialogue at times, but he keeps things moving along so well that doesn’t really matter, at least not to me. As a character, Dirk Pitt is a kind of a jackass at times, too, but you have to admire him because Cussler really heaps on the punishment but Pitt keeps taking on the bad guys anyway. I enjoyed this novel enough that I’ll certainly continue with the series, and I don’t think it’ll take me several years to get around to the next one. In fact, I have a copy of ICEBERG already and will probably read it later this year.

Coming up in Forgotten Books posts: I feel a Western binge coming on.


Bill Crider said...

I think this one got the Edgar for best paperback original. I have a Pyramid edition, which I think was the first U. S. printing.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I've never heard of this one. Thanks, James.

keeline said...

Your publication history is in error. It was initially published in the US by Pyramid in 1973 as indicated by Bill Crider in another comment. The Pyramid edition is a scarce book.

The first UK edition, as "Mayday!", was published in paperback by Sphere in 1977. This was after Iceberg (Dodd, Mead, 1975) appeared in the US in hardcover and Raise the Titanic (Viking, 1976) also in hardcover. The Sphere UK editions of these titles were all in paperback. Sphere reprinted Mayday! several times.

The first UK hardcover was published, again as "Mayday!", for the library market by Severn House. It is scarce and sought after by collectors.

The fourth Cussler book was also issued by Viking, Vixen 03, in 1978. All of the first US printings starting with Raise the Titanic are quite findable with some effort and expense.

Night Probe was issued by Bantam in hardcover in the US in 1981. There is a story that when Cussler mentioned the unpublished Dirk Pitt story known as Pacific Vortex, the editor replied something like "you should not have told us about this, now we have to have it." It was issued in paperback in 1983.

As with the UK hardcover edition of Mayday!, there was a scarce US hardcover of Pacific Vortex made with libraries as the sole market. I saw one once in a library but they would not part with it.

Cussler collectors often buy the books when they first come out and this usually means a hardcover. However, there are a number of paperback originals in the various books which bear his name. This is always something of an annoyance to the collector's mind which wants to see a row of similar books on the shelf.

Hence, there have been some later publishing efforts to reissue some of the PBO titles or scarce early volumes in hardcover. Mediterranean Caper, Iceberg, Pacific Vortex, and Serpent are some of the titles which have had short-run hardcovers. These are almost as difficult to find as the paperback originals.

I came by most of this publishing knowledge through independent research but there is also a book by Wayne Valero which helps to untangle the Cussler publication history. I also wrote a long article for Firsts magazine on collecting Cussler that gives more details on this.

James D. Keeline

James Reasoner said...

James Keeline,

Many thanks for the correct publication info. I based the comments in my post in the information on the copyright page of the edition I read, which was a recent paperback.

Scott Parker said...

To date, this is the only Cussler I have read and it's been awhile. As a historian, I enjoy his taking two events from the past and setting the current story just a year or two in the future to make one whopping tale. I have read more of Jack Higgins' Sean Dillion books than Pitt. I have Inca Gold at home. Might have to bring it out.

Mark Terry said...

Cussler's always been a bit problematic for me. I've read all his books--including Mediterranean Caper--up to maybe 7 or 8 years ago. I've always enjoyed his storytelling and enjoyed Dirk, especially the banter between Dirk & Al (and my family and I really LIKED the movie Sahara, so go figure).

That said, I'm fairly forgiving of pedestrian writing if the story's there, but Cussler has had a tendency to strain my forgiveness when it comes to writing, (he said vociferously). Pretty clunky and some of his books felt padded, so I just plain struggled to get through them.

Criticisms aside, I've spent many happy hours having adventures via Cussler, and when I'm in the right mood, he's a lot of fun.

James Reasoner said...


You pretty much nailed it regarding Cussler's style. The problem I have with his later books, the reason I may not ever get around to reading them, is their length. What I can forgive for 300 pages gets pretty tiresome at 600 pages. Of course, a reader's reaction to a writer's style is such a subjective thing, and it's obvious that there are lots and lots of readers who don't feel that way about Cussler's work.

And I'm glad to see that I'm not the only one who liked the movie SAHARA. I really enjoyed it.

Richard Robinson said...

A few years ago I came across a slew of audiobooks of Cussler's books. I'd heard of him and the books but hadn't read any. It seemed the earliest book, judging by the information on the audiobooks, was this one so that's where I started. Next was Pacific Vortex, which had a glitch and would only play the first 1/3. I guess that's why these were so cheap. Anyway, I've not gotten back to them, but may now try another. I suspect the audiobooks are edited, by the way, but it doesn't say anything either way, no "complete and unabridged" statement. Entertaining. There are tons of used pb copies of most of the series around.

Evan Lewis said...

I remember this one. In this and Pacific Vortex, Dirk Pitt was a James Bond clone. Seems to me he begins to develop his own character in book 3. I've read all but the latest couple of Pitts, and still enjoy them. Cussler's not a great prose stylist, but the humor and audacious plots keep me coming back.

Anonymous said...

I've read about 14 of the 20 Dirk Pitt novels.

And They range from passable entertainment to abysmal. NIGHT PROBE!, In which the US Annexes Canada due to some pre World War 1 money wrangling activities by Britain being the second worst.. the Worst so far being Deep Six in which the entire activity of not only NIGHT PROBE but Raise the Titanic have been completely forgotten.. some one who discovered and raised the titanic, and discovered a treaty allowing the US to annex 1/8th the earths surface.. would not be a total Unknown to the KGB as Pitt is presented to be in Deep Six.. Also Al "The Hairy Italian Dwarf" some how masquerades as a Woman in Deep Six.. Its not just Silly, its facepalmingly bad. Sahara - Trojan Odyssey have their own quirks.. namely Clive Cussler is actually in them, usually to provide some crucial bit of information or something or other.

These are books which one would normally consider good for a long airplane ride.. however I'd be afraid my Gufaws would keep the other passengers awake.

that being said.. most of them also provide good entertainment.. I read Pacific Vortex and the Mediterranean caper in one weekend.