Tournament of Books 2015

The New Republic Online
Thursday, August 26th, 2004


Lost City (NUMA Files)

by Clive Cussler and Paul Kemprecos

Blunt Weapon

A review by Sacha Zimmerman

Certain required elements keep a pulp thriller tethered to a necessary amount of predictability and hackneyed plot. There will be close calls, and there will be a man and a woman thrown into a life-threatening (perhaps world-threatening) situation, and there will be elaborate chases, and there will be the unraveling of some kind of conspiracy. Given these parameters, it becomes incumbent upon the author to twist the requisites into unique, tantalizing animals. Stephen King marries horror with thrill, creating a chase that is intertwined with the monsters under your bed. Carl Hiaasen and Helen Fielding take the thriller directly into the realm of campy fun and let you laugh at the trite composition. Tom Clancy brings terrorist plots and nuclear disaster to the table. Whether it's an absurdist joyride or a wicked tale of Nazi sympathizers, the best thriller writers superimpose their own voice and brand of story over the basic template.

Certainly, Clive Cussler is familiar with this template; he has written more than 20 thrillers. Like so many authors in this genre, he has become an institution—and by that I mean a brand. The name Cussler sells books. Indeed, Cussler may not even have to write them; his name alone will earn him a number-two debut on the best-seller list. His latest book, Lost City, is "co-authored" by Paul Kemprecos, whose name appears in very small letters under the towering Cussler, which is larger even than the title of the novel. I would wager dollars to donuts that Kemprecos wrote this novel and that it would not sell 50 copies if Cussler's name were not attached. But, as I have no one to accept this bet, I will assume that the mighty Cussler did in fact have a hand in writing this thriller but somehow forgot that he is supposed to know how the genre works and that he has a reputation for being good at it. For somehow, perhaps during an amnesiac spell, Cussler (or whoever wrote this book) cribbed other plots, ideas, and characters from so many other authors — from Mary Shelley all the way to V.C. Andrews — that Lost City feels like the syllabus for "How to Write for 'Tales From the Crypt' 101."

This patchwork of other people's good ideas is sewn together by one of Cussler's stock characters: Kurt Austin, the leader of a crack underwater spy/scientist team with the National Underwater and Marine Agency (NUMA). Think Navy SEALs with Ph.D.s in marine biology. But, if you're hoping for Jules Verne on speed, you'll be disappointed; instead, it's more like The Island of Dr. Moreau meets "The Most Dangerous Game" meets The Picture of Dorian Gray meets everything by Edgar Allen Poe. Members of a rich French weapons-making family, the Fauchards, have been experimenting with life-prolonging elixirs for decades in the hope of becoming gods on earth. Racine Fauchard, the vain matriarch, is also turning seaweed into a mutating invincible plant life la Little Shop of Horrors to turn the oceans into a soggy, spongy swamp and send the world into pandemonium so that she can become queen of the planet. Apparently Racine is certain that a chaotic world will view her immortality as just what it needs in a leader. The Fauchards' elixir has been tested on many human subjects over the years, resulting in some "mistakes" that the Fauchards like to keep — guess where! — on their private island. And, just in case you weren't sure who the antagonists are, the Fauchards also keep dungeons full of scenes from famous works by Poe as though they were operating a Madame Tussauds exhibit. But wait! Are the people in these nightmarish dioramas really wax? I'll let you guess.

When Cussler isn't alluding to works by superior authors, he is overtly citing them. "The dark woods were like something out of a Tolkien novel. Austin carried a device Gandalf the wizard would have envied." " Madame Fauchard makes Dracula look like Mother Teresa." "Like the Medusa whose gaze could turn men to stone, Gorgonweed becomes a thick, hard biomass." "What part of our story do you think the police will believe? 'The Pit and the Pendulum' or 'The Cask of Amontillado'?" But truly the best overt reference occurs when the Fauchards' castle (mais, bien sur!) is burned to the ground and falls in on itself. "Poe's story! The Usher family and their house were both rotten to the core. Just like the Fauchards, they collapsed under the weight of their deeds." Cussler might as well just come out and say, "Get it?! Because the Fauchards were obsessed with Poe!! Muaahh!" Other works that come up in the novel include Escape From Alcatraz, Dr. Strangelove, 2,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Marquis de Sade, The Old Man and the Sea, Wind in the Willows, and Masquerade, as well as Dante and Rousseau. There are so many stories by other authors in Lost City that reading this book becomes an exercise in reminiscing about all these other better works. Now I'm dying to read The Island of Dr. Moreau again.

No doubt Cussler's name explains much of the popularity of this slapdash olio of classic horror, but I think something else is at work too. Cussler has created a super-villain. Not only are the Fauchards an amalgam of every frightening character ever conceived, they are weapons-manufacturers — and they're French to boot! In fact, it turns out the Fauchards pushed for World War I through their political connections and catalyzed the war to end all wars by assassinating Archduke Ferdinand. More war means more weapons, which means more wealth to throw at the fountain-of-youth experiment, which means more power, which means more war, and so forth until the oceans gel over with overactive seaweed and the anarchic masses look to the youthful Fauchards as their gods. OK. It seems reasonable to me, too. So, Cussler's moral? Weapons don't kill people, French weapons-makers do. All evil on the planet can be traced to the Fauchards. The people who create arms are the people who create war. It's a convenient way to forget the nuanced differences between ethnicities and land rights that accompany war or the diplomacy and nation-building that surround it. At a time when most Americans just want Iraq to go away and the president has defined the world into a good-and-evil dyad, Cussler offers an easy way out: Kill the Fauchards (i.e., stop making weapons) and all this messy political war jibber-jabber will go away — just like taking out Frankenstein, or Dracula, or Medusa, or the Wolfman, or ... well, you get the idea.

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