I finished The Mediterranean Caper by Clive Cussler (1931 – 2020), which was first published in 1973. I think it is the first in the Dirk Pitt (the main character) series, even though most lists have Pacific Vortex! listed first. I have also read that one, but it was published in 1983, but allegedly written first. It absolutely does not matter to the reader, though, so do not get caught up in the chronology.
I decided (in a whimsical and irrelevant way) that I would read a bunch of pulpy action-adventure things. I have been enjoying the adventure stuff more than anything else lately. One cannot, I think, always be in the mood to read this sort of shlocky pulp. However, right now for me, it is a total escape and ease. Reading novels should be fun and while I can appreciate the heavy duty literature, I am content to be reading this rubbish.
The Mediterranean Caper is just one half-step away from the “men’s adventure novels” of the 50s and 60s. So, if the reader is not aware of that, they may have different expectations of this novel. Unfortunately, because this novel hovers too closely toward the stylings of those men’s adventure writings, it has not aged well at all. Honestly, I have read some of the usual crusty men’s adventure pulps – and The Mediterranean Caper does not quite measure up to their standards (whatever that may mean) either. Well, the so-called toxic masculinity, alpha male themes of the pulps usually gets combined with a splash of patriotism, lurid scenes with farcical women, stereotyped villains, all placed over a steady beat of gunfire. In The Mediterranean Caper we get a thoroughly dislikeable main character, plot holes, stereotyped villains, and a level of ridiculous that ruins all of the shlock-genre’s standards.
This novel is completely “over-the-top.” Anything and everything that happens is over-the-top. Imagine any scene or character in an action novel and then turn up the volume on every aspect. For example, a character who might be considered cocky is now nearly sociopathic. A scene that has some physical confrontation turns into a superhero battle but as if enacted by elementary school children.
The writing at some points is so ridiculously bad that its laughable – literally, like, one needs to laugh at the author level. The whole thing, frankly, is ridiculous. To his credit, Cussler (and his co-authors) did eventually modernize and swing their future novels from the shlock of the men’s adventure pulps toward a more mainstream, but still lightweight, airport novel. However, reading this earliest is going to be tough reading for most people in the 2020s.
I think readers will criticize the book because of its “pulpy” themes. For example, the misogynistic stuff is everywhere here and rightly to be complained about. The endless smoking also grates on the reader’s nerves, especially since even the characters refer to the cigarettes as “cancer sticks.” The harsh and cruel judgment of anyone who is not the main character or his best friend is really awful, as well. (e.g. the ship’s boy who gets growled at by Pitt)
However, I think it is also necessary to criticize the fact that the novel – even if it wants to emulate the most lewd, action-y novel of the 1950s – is utterly inconsistent. Every character seems like a Gemini. Every character seems to have two sides and the reader never knows which they are about to confront. I think even pulp readers would want a story with more consistency. The lack of consistency makes these characters, for example, shift from being utter jerks to being crazed lunatics.
Anyway, the ridiculous: Pitt spends several sections of the novel without any pants on. I feel like he’s nearly a nudist. The only time that is “excusable” is when he is laying down in his shower stall with his legs up on the shower walls. I mean, at least he’s showering, I guess? Its quite absurd, though, how often this guy’s pants are off – and I am not including his “romantic” scene.
But the best line in the book is when the Greek military special forces (again, this is not really clear, I thought of this like SWAT or something) guy actually says: “Great thunderbolts of Zeus, my inspector, what has happened?” – pg 134, chapter 12. I admit it, I lost it. I snorted and laughed. Utterly over-the-top ridiculous. It is literally the last line one would anticipate, but there it is! Stupidity! The moments of stupid/ridiculous are very frequent throughout the book. One that will stick in my memory for awhile is how Pitt hides a paring knife from the dinner table into his pocket and then later on cuts the mooring line on the boat he steals with it. Why? Because:
Too tired to rise, Pitt leaned over and cut the line with the faithful paring knife and kicked the gear level in reverse. – pg. 86, chapter 8
I kind of want to video real-life examples of this. I want people who are over-tired and injured to casually lean over the hull of bass boats or something and cut line with a kitchen paring knife. Ridiculous.
There is another scene that I want to mention because I do not think any of us will ever run into this scene otherwise. Pitt is making an escape in the wee hours and he steals a donkey to use as his getaway car. He climbs on the donkey but the thing will not walk. He decides this is because he is not using its name. So he starts calling it all kinds of male Greek god names. And then he checks the gender of the donkey and realizes its female – so when he uses the correct female Greek goddess name, the animal starts to haul his butt down the roadway. Ridiculous!
Anyway, lest I do not give credit where credit is due, I did like two features of the novel. The first is using a WWI plane to strafe the airbase and cause ruckus in the sea was a neat inclusion and a good idea. The second is using a submarine to maintain the smuggling operation is also interesting, though, I doubt that works in 2023. Still, I appreciated the uniqueness of this setup.
I cannot really recommend this to anyone – even those who can happily enjoy a 60s pulp novel. Literally, I see no reason to read this. It is over-the-top to an extreme level. The main character is hateable. The plot and characters are inconsistent. The ridiculousness is massive. In a very weak defense, the novel does not take itself seriously whatsoever.