Sinking a Bestseller

Raise the Titanic! By Clive Cussler Viking Press, $8.95, 314 pp.

THE APRIL 16, 1912 edition of the New York American proclaimed the news of history's most famous nautical disaster in typical fashion. Right below a banner headline that announced the sinking of the British luxury liner Titanic off the coast of Newfoundland, the American sadly told the world of the drowning of John Jacob Astor, prominent financier and pillar of New York society. Subsequent paragraphs of the story dealt with the equally shattering deaths of Archibald Butt, President Taft's military advisor, and Harry Elkins Widener of library fame. The news of the 1499 others who perished in the numbing North Atlantic that night--most of them Irish and Eastern European immigrants travelling in steerage class--was buried deep in the inside pages, hidden below another tragedy, the Giants' Christy Mathewson's dropping of the baseball season opener to the Boston Braves.

The editors of the American were not especially crass people, and their newspaper was not especially sensationalistic for its time. The American's Titanic edition simply illustrated a central fact of journalistic life: front-page stories about dead Polish immigrants don't sell newspapers. The public wanted stories about its rich and famous heroes, not depressing death reports and unconfirmed rumors suggesting that the ship's crew might have kept a bunch of faceless illiterates with unpronounceable names below until just before the ship sank. So while the front page headlines trumpeted stories of Astor and his heroic pet airedale Kitty, the news about the steerage-class passengers surfaced inside underneath a box-score, and everyone was happy. An adventure-hungry public eagerly devoured all the stories about the ship's blue-blooded survivors, and the big newspaper magnates obligingly fed them improbable tales of white-tie-and-tails lifeboat heroism. The name Titanic acquired a musical aura, a smokey, well-monied air of drama and romance that later sold countless books and a pair of slick Hollywood tearjerkers to an easily-impressed public. A chance meeting between an iceberg and a ship's hull one chilly night in the North Atlantic thus made more than a few fortunes for quick-moving authors and editors--the right people soon found they could make a lot of money out of the Titanic.

And they still are. Clive Cussler's Raise the Titanic!, the latest beneficiary of the public's nostalgic obsession with all things old, decaying or dead, now stands at number two on The New York Times Best Seller List, and seems certain to net its author enough money to buy an ocean liner of his own. Part of its appeal is probably misplaced: those drawn to the book expecting new tales of aristocratic bravery in the face of death are bound for disappointment, for Cussler has simply used the old wreck as a pawn in a far-fetched modern spy thriller. But the book tries to make up for the deception with a smorgasbord of romantic espionage, classical sleuthing and high-seas heroism, and the formula seems to have worked. Though so egregiously trite and poorly written that the souls of Ian Fleming, Agatha Christie and Herman Melville must all be cringing at Cussler's perversion of the literary forms they mastered, Raise the Titanic! has become immensely popular--and if the three old masters are spinning acrobatically in their graves, Cussler is in the far more enviable position of being able to turn cart-wheels all the way to the bank.

SUCH A SENSATIONAL best-seller must have some redeeming qualities; but if they exist, one must look further than the plot to find them. Raise the Titanic! disproves the common notion that truth is stranger than fiction, for the outlandish twists and turns of Cussler's novel would defy detection by even the most dogged Woodstein. Loosely translated, the book is the inspirational saga of how a top-secret group of brilliant government physicists devises a scheme to save the world from nuclear destruction, realizes the plan requires large quantities of a mysterious element unknown to even the best high-school chemistry textbooks, traces the world's only supply of the element to the cargo hold of the sunken Titanic, miraculously raises the hulk from the depths of the North Atlantic, and then defends its catch against some nasty Soviet spies and an even nastier hurricane. Cussler certainly deserves brownie points for originality, but he doesn't win any for intelligibility. Even with a handful of standard love scenes and assassinations thrown in to keep the reader's mind from wandering off amidst a maze of subplots, the book is a hopelessly convoluted mess that only the most die-hard "Mission: Impossible" fan could possibly enjoy.

Still, for all its absurd complexities, Cussler's plot line is not what finally kills his book. Credible plots are not necessarily the stuff of which good mysteries are made; anyone who believes otherwise should take a long look at the marvelously improbable tales of Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. What distinguishes Cussler's attempt from a genuinely good mystery a la Holmes or Poirot is the author's singular inability to create any distinctively human characters. Cussler's figures are worse than wooden: the neurotic physicist, dashing American agent, villainous Russian spy and confused but loving heroine are all solid concrete stereotypes that wouldn't even pass muster in a remake of "The Adventures of Superman." And the dialogue, which seems borrowed from a 1952 State Department propaganda pamphlet, doesn't help--one hardly knows whether to laugh or cry at the following outburst from the American heroine to her Soviet tormentor: What's the matter, Ivan? Too used to muscle-bound, hod-carrying Russian women? Can't get used to the idea of a liberated gal from the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave laughing at your sorry tactics?

Sorry tactics indeed. Cussler's book doesn't even pass as good satire--his humor is too leaden and his heroes are not appealing enough to succeed as caricatures of a frequently caricatured genre. Stuck in a no-man's land between the superbly serious thrillers of John LeCarre and the outlandishly clever spy fantasies of Ian Fleming, Raise the Titanic! flounders along its muddily mediocre way.

Except it isn't floundering. Week after week, the book is right up there at number two on the Times list, raking in boatloads of cash and sending eager film producers to Cussler's door clutching lucrative contracts for movie rights. Raise the Titanic! is the epitome of what publishers are feeding the American reading public, and that sorry fact says a great deal about the state of today's popular fiction.

The problem is not, as a few literary purists suggest, an inherent lack of quality in any work that appeals to a mass audience. Popular fiction is an important art form, with its own distinctive rules and a few acknowledged masters whose works combine popular appeal with genuine literary flair. Nor does the fault lie with the tastes of the reading public, for it regularly receives the works of the masters--the LeCarres, the John D. MacDonalds--enthusiastically. Rather, the problem stems from the fact that the public can only buy what the publishers put in the bookstores--and American publishers have long labored under the misconception that the public does not want quality fiction. The familiar "Charlie's Angels" formula of writing--fast cars and faster women wrapped around a couple of gimmicks and out-dated cliches--now enjoys unprecedented popularity in most publishing houses, and so the public must regularly deal with works like Cussler's. Faced with no other choice, it buys them.

What then? After the Titanic sank, an outraged public demanded a special Senate committee to discover why so many fine people from the Social Register had to take an unscheduled dip in the Atlantic that April night. The Smith Committee held exhaustive hearings, asking tough questions that ranged from the topic of what the guilty iceberg was made of ("Ice," replied the ship's Fifth Officer) to the chances of salvage. Another crew member answered that question with the choking reply, "No, no, she went down like a rock and now she's gone--they'll never raise her." The advice is well taken. Cussler's book, like the famous event it recalls, is a singularly memorable disaster. And if the American reading public isn't content to let it sink slowly out of sight, it may be in store for even more unpleasant times in the future.