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.
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