Wednesday, August 31, 2011

BOOKS: The Spy by Clive Cussler

The book review month ends with what is a bit of a surprise to me, a period piece. I normally like my books to be about the day after tomorrow, or even further into the future. I did my time with noirish books that looked back at earlier last century when I was a young 'un. But Clive Cussler is Clive Cussler and I am nothing, if not a completist when it comes to his work.

I though the initial book in the Isaac Bell series, The Chase, was pretty decent. Cussler loves trains and I learned more about them than I had before (and I had a grandfather who was in the train business). Justin Scott came on (at least getting cover credit) for the second book in the series, The Wrecker (review). It was an improvement. The third book in the series, The Spy, is another step up in entertainment value.

The America-spanning travelogues of the first two books largely disappear here as Cussler concentrates the action on the eastern seaboard. It all takes place in the decade before the first World War and tensions are ratcheted up because everybody knows a conflict to blow all other conflicts up, is in the future. Spies, saboteurs and thieves are seemingly on every corner in New York.

Cussler can paint an historical picture as a backdrop to a thriller as well as any writer in the business, although who knows who's doing the actual wordsmithing these days. Cussler's book factory approach with co-authors leaves some doubt about who does what. Whatever Scott's contributions this time out, it produces a great read. And one that is probably pretty spot on with background minutiae.

A secret project called Hull 44 is at the heart of this story. It's supposed to give an eventual edge to the Americans in any future battle at sea. But spies from Japan, Germany and even Great Britain want the technology. And murdering guards and inventors and technicians don't seem beyond what they will do. Bell and his Van Dorn Detective Agency are called in as protection initially, detectives after the fact of the theft of key technology.

And Bell makes for an appealing hero. Women throw themselves at him with regularity, but he remains true to his sweetheart, Marion Morgan the actress. She gives as good as she gets and the pair have some entertaining patter.  Bell's an action hero as we go along and a little less invulnerable than the typical lead character. He needs help and gets it from his sturdy fellow detectives of the Van Dorn.

From the Brooklyn Shipyards to Hell's Kitchen, Bell tries every trick in the books to reveal the plots and identities of the bad guys. It all culminates in a not-so-leisurely submarine ride up the Manhattan River with things threatening to explode and take the city, so great they named it twice, down.

The action finished, it's time to rest a spell and move ahead to the book's future in one final chapter. As with the other books in this series, it's quite compelling. And a nice capper on the best book of the lot.

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