Well, although I hadn’t planned to read another old Clive Cussler novel from the 1970s (after having a lukewarm reaction to “Iceberg” and vastly preferring Cussler’s more modern co-written stuff like “Zero Hour” and “The Pharaoh’s Secret“), I ended up reading a novel from 1976 called “Raise The Titanic”.
This was one of several old Clive Cussler novels that my uncle lent me a couple of days earlier, after I mentioned I’d become a fan of Clive Cussler. I chose to read “Raise The Titanic” first because of the intriguing title and because it looked like the shortest book in the pile. Of course, it only looked shorter than an ordinary Clive Cussler novel because the print was smaller than usual in the edition I read. But, I decided to keep reading nonetheless.
So, let’s take a look at “Raise The Titanic”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS.
“Raise The Titanic” begins on board the RMS Titanic in 1912. A mysterious passenger has spent several days hiding in his cabin, only emerging soon after the ship’s engines mysteriously stop. Finding a steward, he draws a pistol and orders the steward to lead him below decks to the ship’s vault. Once he gets to the vault, he mutters a few cryptic comments before locking himself inside. As the steward flees the sinking ship, he is completely bewildered about what has just happened.
Then we flash forward to the near-future year of… 1987. America’s rough tough cigar-chomping president is having a meeting with the heads of a top secret research agency he’s set up called Meta Section. They’ve come up with a plan to use sonic waves as a defence against Soviet missiles, however the planned technology requires large quantities of an ultra-rare element called Byzanium in order to work.
Unbeknownst to the President, the only known natural source of Byzanium ore is in a remote part of Russia, and Meta Section have already started a clandestine research mission. However, Meta Section hasn’t heard from the researchers in a while and it’s clear that something has gone wrong….
One of the first things that I will say about “Raise The Titanic” is that it’s a very different novel to what I’d expected. Far from being an action-thriller novel, it’s much more of a mixture of a detective novel, a cold war spy thriller, a drama, a political thriller and a scientific thriller. Although there are obviously a few fast-paced moments, this novel is more of a slow burn, but it is still fairly gripping nonetheless.
Interestingly, the relative lack of “action” in this novel is more than compensated for by the emphasis on environmental danger later in the story. Although the Soviets are the novel’s nominal villains, the main source of suspense and drama is often the danger involved in raising the Titanic etc…. This focus on suspenseful environmental danger in the second half of the story means that the story’s few moments of action-movie style drama stand out a lot more too.
Plus, Cussler’s writing has improved significantly since he wrote “Iceberg” (1975). “Raise The Titanic” includes vaguely three-dimensional characters, an intricate web of plot threads, a multi-act structure and a fair number of interesting plot twists and mysteries. In addition to Meta Section’s travails with the Byzanium, there’s also the story of the troubled marriage between two characters, a historical mystery, some spy drama in the Soviet Union and the adventures of Dirk Pitt, Sandecker and NUMA too.
And this is before the sunken Titanic even comes into sight almost exactly halfway through the book. So, what this story lacks when compared to the rollercoaster-like thrills of Cussler’s modern co-written novels, it more than makes up for with interesting complexity, drama and intrigue. There’s also the suspenseful and spectacular high drama of the scenes involving the wreck of the Titanic too. I read somewhere that there was a film adaptation of this book, and it really wouldn’t surprise me.
The narration in this novel is reasonably good and, as you would expect from a novel of this vintage, Cussler’s writing style is a bit more descriptive and slow-paced than you would find in a modern paperback thriller novel. Although this means that the novel can’t be binge-read quite as easily, it does mean that the story is more atmospheric, suspenseful and vivid.
Likewise, Cussler has improved slightly at writing dialogue since he wrote “Iceberg”. Although a lot of the dialogue is still fairly good (and is often the most fast-paced part of the story), there’s a bit more personality and humour in this novel. In addition to this, the dialogue also includes a few classic techniques – such as name-dropping the book’s title at one point, a character giving a dramatic speech to the villains etc…
Interestingly, the novel’s foreword points out that it was written before the wreck of the Titanic was found in real life. Although this is eerily surprising, the novel doesn’t always predict the “future” that well.
Even though the story is nominally set in the mid-late 1980s, it couldn’t be more ’70s if it tried. There’s even a short scene set in a disco at one point. A disco, in the 1980s! Still, luckily for Cussler, the Berlin Wall didn’t fall until 1989, so the cold war-based parts of the story still have some level of historical verisimilitude.
The novel’s fictional President also initially seems eerily like a Trump-style character, but he actually turns out to be a more intelligent, more articulate etc… character than you might expect as the story progresses. Still, from a 21st century perspective, seeing this type of character portrayed in a non-satirical way is somewhat surprising.
The novel also briefly makes an awkward (but probably progressive for the time it was written) attempt at tackling the subject of racism and, although this scene will probably be somewhat cringe-worthy to modern readers, it is at least critical of racism and is included for a vaguely plot-relevant reason (eg: a “good” character’s sudden and unexpected use of racist language shows that his psychological state is deteriorating. Then again, this is also shown by what happens before this moment too, so the dialogue segment in question is perhaps superfluous).
Still, like with “Iceberg”, if you can overlook the dated elements of the story, then you will be rewarded with a gripping story that is filled with some spectacularly dramatic moments, intriguing mysteries, a little bit of spy drama and some dramatic plot twists. Like with “Iceberg”, it’s the kind of gripping book that will make you want to keep reading despite the parts that haven’t stood the test of time.
All in all, this novel swims rather than sinks. It is a really good detective/scientific thriller/spy thriller novel. Yes, it’s a little slow-paced by modern standards. Yes, it shows it’s age a bit. But, despite this, it’s still the kind of book that will make you want to read more just to see what happens next.
Or, to put it another way – thanks to Clive Cussler, I’ve read about as many novels within the past fortnight as I did during the entire year before that. And, I’ll probably keep reading more.
If I had to give this novel a rating out of five, it would get a four.