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Sunday, July 19, 2009

We all live in a 'yellow peril' submarine

MEDUSA by Clive Cussler. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2009, 454 pp., $27.95 (cloth)

This 454-page thriller, written in the time frame between the outbreak of SARS and swine influenza, puts a new twist on biological warfare. Indeed, what if an insidious crime syndicate were to infiltrate medical research and then, seeking huge profits, practice extortion on a worldwide scale?

Cussler's best known work, "Raise the Titanic!" (1976) involved the recovery of the famous ocean liner from the bottom of the north Atlantic. His fiction has continued to focus on nautical themes, invariably working in some esoteric historical event — the current work features New England whalers in the 1840s right out of "Moby Dick" — and then tying the remote past to contemporary events.

Like techno-thriller writer Tom Clancy, Cussler also maintains his popularity by appealing to down-home American virtues. To qualify as a hero in a Cussler novel, you must (1) hold an advanced degree in nautical science; (2) be able to shoot the wings off a fly; (3) drive a domestically built car with at least 400 horsepower; and (4) enjoy consuming humongous quantities of barbecued animal parts washed down with alcoholic beverages.

In other words, Cussler's thrillers combine fascinating historical research about ancient mariners with brilliant heroes boasting the cocksure arrogance and dietary preferences of a 17-year-old.

For his obligatory villains, sinister Asians form a sizable part of Cussler's stock in trade. His Yanks contended with Japanese in "Dragon" (1990); with Mongols in "Treasure of Khan" (1996); with Chinese in "Flood Tide" (1997); and with Japanese again in "Black Wind" (2004).

In "Medusa," Chinese have once again been pressed into service, although Cussler doesn't really appear to take himself very seriously this time. The masterminds behind the troubles are revealed on page 156, when the three principals of a Chinese Triad (criminal syndicate), who happen to be triplets, hold a teleconference.

"Congratulations, Wen Lo," Fu Manchu said. "You are looking at the master criminal who is preparing to unleash the Yellow Peril against the civilized nations of the world." . . . the voice behind the leering archfiend belonged to a flesh-and-blood person who ran a criminal empire that [Fu Manchu's creator] could only have dreamed of.

While moderately entertaining, Cussler's works are also instructive — partly about nautical history and even more so about developing formulaic fiction that appeals to readers' tastes for tidbits of knowledge and tons of action. At the time of this writing, "Medusa" was ranked 10th on the New York Times list of best-sellers.

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