Cussler is a lot like Pizza – very tasty, very fun, very casual, but not much in the way of substance.
Now that I’ve gotten my high-brow snarkiness out of the way, lets get down to brass tacks – The Wrecker is a thriller set in 1907 or so by a writer from Cussler’s stable, an effort to export the high-level, fast-paced political-action thriller back into a world we think of as kinder and gentler (don’t be fooled – a decade later, men hung up on barbed wire would be machined-gunned). Interestingly, many of the causal reviewers were impressed with the historical accuracy of the novel. This is where it fell flat for me.
I’ve mentioned HERE my experiences with the La Mesa club, running trains under a control system used across a hundred years of railroad operations, ‘Time Table & Train Order’. I know how railroads worked and how trains were moved. This simple fact killed the book for me – it was clear the author didn’t know anything about this (at one point, desperados try to sabotage the railroad by interfering with the telegraph, which is stated as used for moving trains from town to town – wrong, wrong, wrong). This might seem like a minor fact, but I would expect a more modern novel (say, involving submarines) to have a basic understanding of submarine operating principles and not figure that the captain just aimed for the channel mouth when leaving port.
There was also the transposing of our modern attitude of meetings and conferences in this far-away time. There was no net-meetings, no conference calls, no flying over for three days to discuss things and then redeye home. Offices and businesses back then had more independence. Yet in the book, every time the heroes needed to get together to plot strategies, they had to commission private trains to whisk them (and airline speeds) across the country for their meetings. Again, I know how trains ran, and elevating a single train over all others in the time-tabled pecking order would cause time- and cash-intensive disruptions. This whole idea that such an effort was routine in any way broke the novel for me.
Think I’m off-base here? In Captains Courageous, the railroad-owning father, upon finding out that his son is back from the dead and in an eastern fishing port, calls all his railroad rivals to put aside their economic wars and give him such a privilege. In this, his journey is an epic with the trains of hostile railroads standing on every siding as his white-flagged extra screams eastward. In this, it is an amazing race of a desperate father willing to grant his rivals power over him, just for a few hours of critical time. The same point was made in the old flick Danger Flag, where the entire railroad is put on the siding so that one man can be raced to a top-flight brain surgeon.
What I’m saying is that critical things like special trains are rare and amazing, not just some sort of steam-powered Leer jet, permitting a man to put his ass in a seat on the other side of the country.
There were other things – I remember feeling annoyed that the villain, when thwarted once, had an extensive and expensive backup plan in place, one that he could whip out at a critical moment. I remember thinking, “Oh, come on!” when suddenly it is revealed that, per chance, the blackguard had other men, other plans, a web of evil yadda yad. Sure, sure.
I suppose the writer was hampered in that, unlike today’s stories, dynamite fuses don’t have a digital count-down for added suspense.
No, I’m sorry, but this book didn’t cut it for me. As a historic writer, I understand that we must guess at history, filling in the gaps with the caulk of conjecture. Further, we must make a leap between our concepts and beliefs of 2012 into earlier, distant, and often alien cultures. In my view, The Wreckers did neither of these. They should have just made it anther Dirk Pitt novel and left it at that.