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A Superficial Race
on September 8, 2011
The Race Review 9/8/2011
The Race, the second in a series written by Justin Scott, under Clive Cussler's name, is a highly detailed account of a publicity airplane race, coast-to-coast, in 1910, less than a decade after the Wright Brothers' first powered flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The terms of the race are that it must be done by the starting pilot, completed in under 50 days, following a prescribed route; the flying machines must also be airborne for at least two hours a day. The payoff is a $50,000 prize and extraordinary publicity by newspaper publisher Preston Whiteway, a William Randolph Hearst type of character.
Scott includes incredible detail in his novel: the particulars of the various types of flying machines in the contest, the minutia of parts of the aircraft, the clothing worn by the aviators, the types of weapons used by both the heroes and the villains, and the various locations where the craft land for repairs and R&R for the pilots. This is the same pattern used in the earlier two novels in the Scott series, as well as Cussler's solo, first-in-series, novel, The Chase. The technique was an effective device for drawing the reader into the worlds of the novels.
Unfortunately, the human element is missing in The Race. This element was essential to the success of The Spy, The Wrecker and The Chase. Each of the earlier novels made the reader feel what the characters were experiencing--both the good and the bad--and care about what happened to them. Each character was also carefully drawn as a unique individual, with his/her own needs, loves, hates and desires. Each machine central to the story was also well-drawn-out, in meticulous detail, in such as way as to make the reader feel as though he/she were actually on a speeding locomotive or inside a submarine or on a dreadnaught.
We also were in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, felt the evil in the dime novel villains in the three earlier novels, and cheered on the stalwart hero, Isaac Bell. We enjoyed watching the growing love between Isaac Bell and Marion Morgan, the popular actress and filmmaker. We even enjoyed the rivalry between Bell and the publisher Whiteway for the affections of Miss Morgan. All of that richness is gone.
In The Race, we have no sense of the wonder of flight, in an age where such a thing was almost miraculous...the euphoria of being above the Earth, like a bird on wing, seeing and absorbing as a pioneer all that lay before, beneath and around us. The novel is set in 1910 when flight was something most people had only dreamed of, and most would never experience--let alone even see a flying machine. Jules Verne and other fantasy and science fiction writers took hold of our imaginations and let them soar above the reality of our lives. The earlier aviators made it real. Yet, we never feel what the characters in The Race feel about the joys, terror, unknowns, and wonders of flight. Scott and Cussler might have done well to take a ride in a replica of early bi-planes or mono-wing planes and then describe what their characters should have experienced. Read Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de St. Expiry for examples of such writing.
All of the sense of being inside the world of the novel is gone. What we are given is a highly detailed landscape peopled by heroes and villains--so we are told by Scott--but we are not drawn into their lives to care about what happens to them. The heroine of The Race, Josephine Frost, is a fresh, innocent young woman who loves to fly. She had married a brute of a man, Harry Frost, an extremely wealthy man who made his fortune by killing or destroying others. Why she did this makes no sense; perhaps she was blinded by her love of flying, which Frost supports until he suspects she is having an affair with her airplane designer. An equally important jump in logic is how no one seems able to stop the ruthless killer, Harry Frost, until, of course, near the end where Bell does what he has to do. Indeed, the reader has no clearly drawn portraits of the principle characters and has little reason to either love, hate, fear or care for them. If it weren't for the earlier novels in the series, the recurring characters would only be mere outlines.
There are other equally superficial characters, including Preston Whiteway who suddenly falls in love with young Josephine Frost and marries her after the presumed death of her husband, Harry Frost. There is no justification for his action; Whiteway has the fortune to meet, marry and provide for many women who could be genuine partners in his world. He agrees to let his young bride fly, only until she has children; then what happens to her: an earth-bound life of raising children and no more flying?
There are numerous other characters who act in illogical ways, without rhyme or reason, merely to move along a rather transparent plot. One central character is Marco Celere, the Italian designer of Josephine's airplane, who assumes several roles by using superficial makeup and accents. Surely, Isaac Bell should have seen through such superficiality, but he is no longer the Sherlockian type of intuitive sleuth of the earlier novels. He has lost his detective insights, missing several obvious clues and always being just a bit late to revolve a matter, much to the detriment of others who are then beaten, shot and/or killed.
In a light, fun-sort-of-way, there is the upper-crust aviator who manages to see his craft destroyed beneath him in several crashes, from which he often manages to walk away with only minor injuries. He is a character the reader enjoys; so his "resurrections" offer a kind of comic relief, much like a beloved uncle who always appears at family celebrations, even though he doesn't quite fit in with the rest of the relatives; he is loved, though, by the innocent children...much as he is by some of the other characters in the novel.
A glaring problem with the novel is the absence of a previous figure essential to the storyline: Marion Morgan, the now fiancée of Isaac Bell. In the earlier novels, she was a vital, vivacious, stunning woman who made the heads of men and women turn. In The Race, she has a cameo role; there is none of the witty repartee between her and Isaac, and none of the underlying sexual tension that made their relationship so genuine. It is as though Scott (and Cussler) do not know how to handle their women. The women have become little more than stereotypes: The innocent female flyer, the cute eye candy for one of Bell's young men, the idolized actress for fans, the fiery Italian who has been wronged. The supporting men are also stereotypes, whether they are part of Harry Frost's gangs or members of the Van Dorn Detective Agency.
Scott (and Cussler) should return to the quality of writing of the earlier novels in the series; those novels drew the reader in, made him/her care about both the heroes and villains, and accept often outrageous plots because they were so well-crafted. The Race, may just be an unfortunate example of a book written to meet a deadline, paying lip service to satisfying the reader. It is time to get back to the tone, mood and creativity of the earlier Isaac Bell novels. Mr. Cussler needs to weed out his stable of writers, limit the volume of output, and focus of what he once did so well early in his writing career: Create fascinating works that drew the reader into highly satisfying worlds of escape.