I was having a conversation with my dad the other day about the first ‘serious’ book I read. You know, that moment when you graduate from The Famous Five into more adult fiction. I racked my brains and came to the conclusion that it was Mr Cussler that first welcomed me, at the tender age of eleven, into the wonderful, and often mystical, world of adult fiction. So coming back to this book is sentimental for me. I have a lot of fond memories of the Dirk Pitt novels, not in the least because they got me through some hairy moments at school. Which is why I just can’t bring myself to be mean.
Dirk Pitt was a massive part of my childhood and cultivating my love for books. But even I, through glasses that are rose-tinted, can see how ridiculous this whole book is. Hell, even the characters regularly remark how daft some of the premises are. *SPOILERS* An ancient, undiscovered fish? Really Mr Cussler, really? To quote “You mean to say that I have fifteen million dollars worth of wrecked aircraft scattered over a base under my personal command, my military career all but ruined, and all because of a goddamned fish?” *SPOILERS END* I rest my case.
Of course, it must be remembered that this was written in the days when an appropriate response to an attack on a US Air Base has our intrepid hero quip “Maybe it’s an irate Greek farmer who’s tired of our jets scaring his goats.” And not be in a terrible rush to investigate. It is time locked. You find yourself telling him to just use his mobile phone dammit only to realise this is 1973. It actually hasn’t aged too badly in that sense. Once you get in that mindset, you don’t notice it.
And Pitt is a piece of work. I’m actually kind of surprised my parents thought this appropriate reading material for an eleven year old. I grew to love the character as the books went on so it was a nasty surprise coming back to this book. His treatment of Teri at the beginning honestly took my breath away. A writer these days would be lynched for not only having their hero pull such a stunt but then be proud and defiant of it. And even beyond that, the character is rude, abrasive (and not in a James Bond sort of a way despite what the blurb says) and too cocky for his own good. Even his whole ‘garbage guy’ routine sets my bones all wrong. Not to mention his behaviour when he first meets Von Till. *SPOILERS* Quite frankly, I’d have set the dog on him too. *SPOILERS END* He just makes it very hard for me to like him. I get the whole ‘rough around the edges’ vibe, and its part of what I love about the character in later books, but in this one it is overdone and leaves a bitter taste.
It’s strange for me. Like seeing a side of a long-time friend I wish I hadn’t. More so because I love most of the characters in his work. I think I fell in love with Giordino the moment he first turned up on the page. He’s his usual likeable self, and frankly more likeable than his best bud in this particular caper, with some brilliant quips that raise a smile. Gunn, while not one of my favourite characters, serves his purpose and is an engaging presence.
Word of warning, feminists should stay clear of this book. There is only one female character of note and, well, let’s just say she does damsel in distress very well. I think mostly it is the age of the book showing because in later books Cussler has written some brilliant female characters (Summer, Loren for starters) but this is very much in that mentality of ‘women are for saving’ (and cooking). ((And generally being sex objects)). (((Yeah, feminists will not like this novel))).
My main gripe with this book, however, is its villain. He feels like he stepped out of a comic book. He is so overblown and overworked. He doesn’t quite get as far as monologuing but I hear maniacal laughter whenever he enters a room. It’s frustrating because ironically, it lessens him as a foe for Pitt.
The book struggles too with its writing. This reads like exactly what it is, a first attempt (appropriately also the chosen name of the NUMA vessel in this book). This book would never have been published today. Not in the state it is in. The writing is clumsy and overworked very often, pushing too hard for suspense. This is an author that overuses the much-contentious adverbs and his descriptive work is very… blunt. It’s weird for me because I know how good Cussler’s later work is. It’s like reading a story you wrote in high school and thinking ‘Oh God, I let people read this???’ I wonder what he thinks when he reads it back now.
It’s also another ‘all hail America’ books. My dear fellow Brits, be prepared to once again be stereotyped. Quote: “By jove, that’s a bit all right”. Dear America, we do not speak like this. Love England.
The last third of the book is much better. The pace picks up, Pitt finally learns how to act like a hero, Giordino gets more page time and everything ties together. The conspiracy and main plot is clever and well thought out, if a little far-fetched but it’ll keep you going with a few surprises along the way.
Mayday is not a bad book. It is a throwaway book. It is a silly but engaging 240 pages of easy reading. The prose isn’t so bad as to detract from the basic enjoyment of the story. I’m going to be re-working my way through Cussler’s books. On that scale, this is one of his low points, and frankly, I’d say don’t bother with it. Despite being first published, it’s not actually first chronologically and there is nothing in this book that you can’t discover in some of the others. They call Clive Cussler the “Grandmaster of Adventure” and that is what he did become, but this I am afraid, is not his finest hour.
Rating: 3-10: Like I say, not his finest hour.
Favourite (1) Quotes: “Yours is not to reason why, my friend.”
Favourite Character: Al Giordino
Least Favourite Character: Dirk Pitt (sorry Dirk, better days to come, I promise buddy)