Although I hadn’t planned to binge-read a novel in the space of two evenings, I finished Clive Cussler’s “Iceberg” shortly before preparing this review. It all began on New Year’s Day when, slightly tipsy from ginger vodka, I randomly remembered an amusing conversation from about a decade and a half ago where someone had talked enthusiastically about Clive Cussler books.
And, out of amused curiosity, I decided to read one of Cussler’s books. A couple of days later, I had an old charity shop copy of “Iceberg” (and a couple of his other novels). And, a couple of days after that, I’d finished reading “Iceberg”. Hence this review.
So, let’s take a look at “Iceberg”. Needless to say, this review may contain some mild-moderate SPOILERS.
“Iceberg” is a thriller/adventure novel from 1975 that begins with a US Coast Guard plane conducting a routine patrol near Canada/Greenland when they spot an iceberg with a ship embedded inside it. But, running low on fuel, they mark the iceberg with dye before returning to headquarters to report it.
A while later, a helicopter makes a daring mid-storm landing on another Coast Guard ship some distance away. Although the ship’s captain is furious about the dangerous landing, the chopper’s pilot – Major Dirk Pitt – quickly commandeers the ship after telling the captain that he has been ordered to track down a missing Soviet spy ship that has been entombed inside an iceberg before the USSR gets to it. Of course, all is not quite what it seems….
One of the first things that I will say about this book is that it’s pretty much what you’d expect from a vintage thriller novel. “Iceberg” is kind of a bit like a cross between a modern Lee Child novel, an old James Bond movie from the 1960s and an old American pulp magazine.
The story has all of the military drama and spy-based intrigue of a more modern thriller. Yet, the protagonist – Dirk Pitt – seems more like something from an old pulp novel. He’s a cartoonishly macho “hero” character like Bulldog Drummond, Doc Savage, Ace Rimmer, Duke Nukem etc.. with a few hints of James Bond too.
The other characters in this book also err towards the side of cliche, and this is something of a double-edged sword. At their best, the characters can be endearingly stylised and theatrical archetypes (eg: the grizzled old admiral, the eccentric scientist, the friendly villagers, the calculating villain etc..) and, at their worst, the characters can be two-dimensional stereotypes (eg: most of the story’s female characters).
Cussler’s narration throughout the novel is really good and it reads like a mildly more formal and complex version of more modern thriller novel narration. It’s very readable – but, if you’ve only read modern thriller novels, it might take you a little while to get used to his style. Still, Cussler uses the kind of unobtrusively readable writing style that will make the pages fly past surprisingly quickly.
The pacing of the story is reasonably good. Although this novel comes from a time before Dan Brown invented ultra-short chapters, the story still moves at a reasonable pace. There’s a good contrast between fast-paced scenes of danger, peril or violence and more slower-paced scenes of dialogue, suspense and/or investigation-based scenes. Neither type of scene really dominates the novel and they both help to make the other seem more interesting by contrast.
The emotional tone of the story is rather strange though. In addition to some more “humourous” moments (eg: the book begins with a merciless parody of horror novels etc..), some hints of thrilling spy drama and some stylised vintage “action movie” type scenes, the novel has a bit more of a harsher and sadistic edge to it than I had initially expected.
For all of Cussler’s jibes about horror novels in the opening pages, he’s certainly read a few of them. In addition to focusing on the consequences of violence (eg: grisly corpses, broken bones, bloody wounds etc..) slightly more than the average thriller writer does, the characters in this story have a sadistic streak about a mile wide. In some parts, the only difference between Dirk Pitt and the villains is that the villains at least grant their victims a merciful death after inflicting horrific suffering on them.
The settings in “Iceberg” are reasonably interesting, with most of the story taking place in the cold, unforgiving ocean and in various parts of Iceland.
But, although this allows the story to contain some desolate and perilous wilderness locations, a fair number of the Iceland-based scenes take place in hotels and cities that seem a little bit… well.. generic.
Even so, the main focus of “Iceberg” is on the story rather than the locations, so this doesn’t matter too much. Not only that, the setting for some of the later scenes of the story seems like something from the best cheesy action movies of the 1980s (and, no, I’m not going to spoil it).
For a book that is forty-three years old, “Iceberg” both has and hasn’t stood the test of time well. On the positive side, the underlying story is pretty much as gripping as a modern thriller novel. Yes, it’s a little slower in places, but it’s still the kind of gripping thing that can be binge-read easily.
Likewise, although the story lacks a lot of modern technology, this actually adds to the suspense in a number of scenes – since the characters can’t just rely on GPS or mobile phones or anything like that. On a basic story level, the adventure/thriller elements of this book are timelessly compelling.
However, some parts of this story really haven’t aged well at all. This book is very much a product of it’s time, and some elements of it will seem incredibly dated and/or “politically incorrect” to modern audiences.
But, if you can ignore these dated elements of the book, then there’s a brilliantly gripping story underneath. Whether the good outweighs the bad is a decision that you’ll have to make for yourself. But, you’ll probably be so gripped by the story that you’ll be willing to keep reading regardless.
All in all, although this certainly isn’t a perfect novel, it is a very gripping one. It’s the kind of book that will make you want to read more of it. It’s the kind of book that you’ll blaze through in about 4-5 hours. And, despite all of this novel’s flaws, I can’t say that I hated it enough to stop reading. Any writer who has the power to hold the reader’s attention for several hours is a good writer. And, because of this, I’ll probably read more Cussler novels.
If I had to give “Iceberg” a rating out of five, it would probably get a three.