The prolific and popular novelist Clive Cussler, who has died aged 88, combined adventure and technology into fast-paced thrillers. Ubiquitous and easily recognisable on airport bookshelves, his books sold more than 100m copies, with 20 novels cracking the bestseller lists.
Cussler’s writing was unusual in the way he wove it and his own life together. His recurring hero, Dirk Pitt, named after his son, was a marine engineer who worked for a government agency, the National Underwater and Marine Agency (Numa), an ocean-going version of James Bond. After Cussler’s third Pitt novel, Raise the Titanic! (1976), became an unexpected hit, he founded his own organisation called Numa, and led more than 60 underwater missions that located wrecks.
These included the Carpathia, the first ship to reach the Titanic; the Confederate ship Manassas, the first ironclad to see action in the American civil war; and both the Confederate submarine Hunley, the first to sink a ship, and the Housatonic, which it sank. Not all were at sea: Numa raised a warship, Zavala, which had belonged to the short-lived Republic of Texas navy, from beneath a car park in Galveston. Cussler also began writing himself into his novels as a character providing help to Pitt.
Cussler found his love of the sea as a youngster. He was born in Aurora, Illinois, and was six when his father, Eric, a German immigrant who worked as an accountant, moved the family to Alhambra, California. On his first outing to Huntington Beach, Clive ran straight into the surf, and was carried away by a wave before his father pulled him out. His mother, Amy (nee Hunnecutt), immediately enrolled him in swimming lessons.
Never a good student, he dropped out of junior college and enlisted in the US air force, serving as a mechanic and flight engineer during the Korean war and learning to scuba dive while stationed in Hawaii. After his discharge he returned to California, taking menial jobs and writing advertising copy for local agencies.
In 1955 he married Barbara Knight and co-founded an ad agency based in Newport Beach, then became advertising director of the Aquatic Marine Corp there. When Barbara began a late-shift job with the local police, he took over the evening duties with his children, and found himself with spare time after putting them to bed. He began writing, using his marine experience, but his first two novels, Pacific Vortex and The Mediterranean Caper, met with solid rejection.
He moved to Denver to work with a larger agency, but eventually got his manuscripts to an agent, Peter Lampack, by pretending to be another agent on the verge of retirement, looking to offload a promising writer. Lampack immediately sold The Mediterranean Caper, which featured Pitt and was published in 1973 (it has since been retitled Mayday). A second Pitt novel, Iceberg (1975), followed, and Cussler gave up his job to write full-time. Pacific Vortex was finally published in 1983, after Cussler became a worldwide phenomenon.
Raise the Titanic!, despite bad reviews, spent six months on the bestseller lists. Cussler’s prose was rarely more than serviceable; his plots and characters were redolent of the pulp magazines of his childhood, not least Doc Savage, whose technological heroism was surely an influence on Pitt, as it was on John D MacDonald’s Travis McGee, from whom Cussler also drew. He combined the exciting elements of Bond or Matt Helm spy thrillers with plot twists drawn from Alistair MacLean; his use of factual information was another MacDonald trademark, and was an influence on writers who followed, such as Tom Clancy.
Raise the Titanic! became a film in 1980, losing the exclamation mark in its title and starring Jason Robards, with Richard Jordan as Pitt. It failed to earn back its large budget, prompting the producer Lew Grade’s famous evaluation, “it would have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic”. Because he disliked it so much, Cussler for years refused to sell another book to the movies. When he finally relented, with Sahara (1992), the movie that finally appeared in 2005, starring Matthew McConaughey and Penélope Cruz, again bombed. He sued the producers for not honouring his script approval.
In 1996 Cussler turned to non-fiction with The Sea Hunters, which told the stories of recovering famous shipwrecks. Co-written with Craig Dirgo, who worked at Numa, it did so well that Cussler was awarded a PhD by the New York Maritime College. He and Dirgo produced a sequel in 2002, as well as Clive Cussler and Dirk Pitt Revealed (1998).
Co-writers helped expand and continue the Cussler brand. In 1998 Paul Kemprecos joined Cussler for a new fiction series, the Numa Files, which, continued by Graham Brown, now stands at 17 novels. Valhalla Rising (2001), the 16th Pitt novel, based on a true murder in Florida where the body was cut in two and left in the Hudson River, New York, introduced Pitt’s children as characters; two novels later, Black Wind (2004) saw Dirk Cussler become his father’s co-writer and the series now stands at 25 books.
Cussler would create a plot, work it out with the co-writer, then edit the writing in 100-page chunks. After he launched three more series, Forbes magazine described him as “the literary equivalent of a theme park”. The Oregon Files featured a hi-tech spy ship introduced in the Pitt series and used by a shadowy “corporation”. The Fargo Adventures dealt with a husband-wife team of treasure hunters, while in The Isaac Bell Adventures the eponymous hero is a detective working for a Pinkerton-style agency at the turn of the 19th century. “My job is an entertainer,” Cussler said. “I hope when the reader finishes the book they got their money’s worth.”
His co-writers also included the Edgar award-winning crime novelist Thomas Perry and Grant Blackwood, who became co-writer of James Rollins and Tom Clancy novels as other best-sellers followed Cussler to extend their ‘brands’.
Cussler’s other hobby was classic cars, and his collection of almost 100 is now housed in a museum in Arvada, Colorado.
Barbara died in 2003. He is survived by his second wife, Janet Horvath, and the son, Dirk, and two daughters, Teri and Dayna, of his first marriage.
• Clive Eric Cussler, writer, born 15 July 1931; died 24 February 2020